Marco Scandella

Where do Habs go from here?

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This season hasn’t gone the way many expected for the Montreal Canadiens. Last year, with expectations in the toilet, the Habs managed to push for a playoff spot until the final weekend of the regular season. Naturally, expectations were that they’d take a step forward and actually get into the postseason this time around. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t look like that will be the case.

Last night’s home loss to the Edmonton Oilers extended their winless streak to eight games. It’s now the second time this season that they’ve gone through that long of a streak.

The first losing skid, which coincided with forward Jonathan Drouin going out of the lineup with a wrist injury, occurred between Nov. 16 to Dec. 1. During that stretch, they picked up three of a possible 16 points. The biggest issue then was that they seemed to lose all of their defensive structure.

They allowed between three and eight goals in all but one game and they surrendered four goals or more in six of those eight contests. That’s pretty surprising for a Claude Julien coached team. Sure, they’ve been without Drouin, Paul Byron, Joel Armia for a while now (Jesperi Kotkaniemi also missed a good chunk of time), but falling apart like that is not acceptable.

This time around, they’re not bleeding as many goals, but they’re blowing leads, making mistakes at crucial times and their confidence seems to be in the gutter. For example, during last night’s loss, they had a 2-0 lead in the second period. As soon as Oilers forward Riley Sheahan scored to make it 2-1, you could just feel that the Habs were going to blow it and they did. It’s too bad because they were the better team for 40 minutes.

Even though they’re playing better this time around, they’ve accumulated just one of a possible 16 points.

“I thought we learned a lot of stuff from the last one,” forward Philip Danault said of the two eight-game winless streaks, per the Montreal Gazette. “This time it’s different because we’re playing well, but we’re not getting results. We play with the lead and we can’t keep it. Early in the year, the third period was our best, but not now.”

Montreal now finds themselves nine points out of a Wild Card spot. The other issue is that there’s five teams between them and that last playoff spot. That’s a lot of teams to leap over for a playoff spot.

So, where do they go from here? 

The Habs have four potential unrestricted free agents that they could move before the trade deadline. Dale Weise, Nate Thompson, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marco Scandella could all fetch a mid-round draft pick. Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Danault, and Jeff Petry all have just one more year on their contracts. All four of those players will be unrestricted free agents in July of 2021.

Now, keeping Gallagher and Danault is a no-brainer. The Canadiens should work on re-signing those two players as soon this coming July. Tatar and Petry are different cases. Tatar is having a career year, as he’s up to 16 goals and 38 points in 45 games this season. He comes with a reasonable $4.8 million cap hit (Vegas is retaining some of his salary). Any team looking for a top-six winger could do worse than Tatar. He could also fetch a nice return for general manager Marc Bergevin.

As for Petry, he’s been an important piece of the defense over the last few years. While She Weber was sidelined with various injuries, it was Petry who picked up the slack. The 32-year-old has struggled over the last little while, but he’s a solid right-handed defender has a $5.5 million cap hit. Petry doesn’t have to be shipped out of town. The Habs have a lot of young defensemen coming through the pipeline and having Petry and Weber there to help those youngsters wouldn’t be a bad idea.

The other situation that needs addressing is Carey Price‘s contract. The veteran netminder hasn’t had much help in front of him this season, but he also hasn’t played at the same level we’re used to seeing him play at throughout his career. He has a 16-16-4 record with a 3.01 goals-against-average and a .901 save percentage this season.

Price also has six years remaining on a contract that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million and he also has a full no-movement clause throughout the life of the deal. He won’t be going anywhere unless he wants to move somewhere else.

But if he is willing to somewhere else, can the Habs find a taker that’s willing him to give them something decent in return for their franchise netminder? Do they even want to trade one of their more important leaders in the locker room? So there are a lot of questions surrounding Price. The Habs need to decide which direction they want to go in.

Will Bergevin be the one to pull the trigger on these moves? Will they move on from their long-time general manager after this season? There’s no doubt that the pressure is on. The worst thing that could’ve happened was the team exceeding expectations last year. This group wasn’t ready to take the next step this year and they might still be a few years away from being a serious contender. This is a crucial part of the “reset”. Whoever the GM is needs to make sure he keeps/trades the right veterans.

It should be an interesting few months in Montreal.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Maple Leafs, Lightning back on track

Order has been restored to the NHL’s Atlantic Division.

After miserable starts to the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, they enter the week as two of the NHL’s hottest teams and have rocketed to the top of this week’s NHL Power Rankings.

The Maple Leafs are currently on a 10-game point streak (9-0-1) and have looked like the powerhouse offensive team they were built to be under new coach Sheldon Keefe.

The Lightning, meanwhile, are quietly starting to wake up from their early season slumber. Since Dec. 1, the Lightning have the second-best record in the NHL and are starting to post downright dominant underlying numbers. Their shot attempt share since then is second best in the league. They are third in expected goals (all numbers via Natural Stat Trick). They are averaging more than three-and-a-half goals per game. Finally they are starting to look like the team that won 62 regular season games a year ago.

Both teams continue to make big jumps in the power rankings and occupy the top two spots for this week given their recent play.

Where does everyone else sit?

To the rankings!

1. Toronto Maple Leafs. They have not lost a game in regulation since Dec. 12 and have the league’s best record (15-4-1) since hiring Keefe. They have some flaws, but they look like the team they were were supposed to be.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. Everyone was so quick to bury the Lightning this season that no one seems to be paying attention to the fact they have been one of the league’s best teams for more than a month now.

3. Washington Capitals. They showed the San Jose Sharks on Sunday that they are never out of a game.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. They are by no means giving up on Matt Murray but the net belongs to Tristan Jarry right now, and he has earned it.

5. St. Louis Blues. A tough road trip that saw them go 0-2-1 and get outscored 16-8 drops them from the top spot for now.

6. Vancouver Canucks. They have feasted at home this season and enter the week on a seven-game winning streak. But they have to show they can win on the road, too, and they get a chance to prove that this week as they start a five-game road trip.

7. Dallas Stars. If you like goals this is not the team to watch because they don’t score many and they don’t give up many. What do they do? Win.

8. Boston Bruins. Is this too low for a team in first place in its division with one of the best overall records in the league? Not when consider they have only won four of their past 15 games. To be fair, six of those 11 losses have come in overtime or shootout (they have zero OT or shootout wins during that stretch) and there is a HUGE element of bad luck there.

9. Colorado Avalanche. They slumped for a bit, but then started to break out of it with back-to-back blowout wins against the Blues and New Jersey Devils.

10. Vegas Golden Knights. They were better than the early record showed, and now the results are starting to back up the process.

11. New York Islanders. Overall, they are fine. But they have struggled a bit over the past couple of weeks. They have won just four of their past 10 games and only two of those wins have been in regulation. Losing Adam Pelech will not help.

12. Florida Panthers. Imagine how good they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky played like they hoped he would.

13. Carolina Hurricanes. Andrei Svechnikov is on his way to becoming a superstar in this league.

14. Arizona Coyotes. Goaltending is a big part of their success, and their top two goalies are currently injured. Hopefully for their sake Antti Raanta‘s injury is not serious.

15. Philadelphia Flyers. Every time you think you have them figured out, they do a complete 180 and go in the opposite direction.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets. The injury list keeps growing, but they keep finding ways to collect points and keep themselves in the playoff race.

17. Minnesota Wild. Bruce Boudreau has done a really good job keeping this team in the playoff hunt because the roster just is not very special.

18. Nashville Predators. They are fine, and actually quite good, during 5-on-5 play. Their special teams and goaltending is sinking them.

19. Calgary Flames. They should be better than this, but outside of a brief surge following the coaching change they have been a pretty mediocre team all season.

20. Chicago Blackhawks. They are trying to overcome the early deficit they gave themselves, but they still have a lot of points to make up and a lot of teams to jump over.

21. Edmonton Oilers. Huge win in Boston over the weekend. It was just their sixth win in 18 games.

22. Buffalo Sabres. Jason Botterill finally did something to address the defensive logjam and shortage of forward depth. Just not sure if it was enough, especially as they lost another top forward (Victor Olofsson) to injury.

23. New Jersey Devils. They have found some success in recent weeks, but it is probably way too little, way too late.

24. Winnipeg Jets. They are on the playoff bubble and heading in the wrong direction.

25. New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin is on his way to a career season. He just does not have enough help around him yet.

26. San Jose Sharks. They have won a few games lately, but losing that game in Washington is going to sting. When you are desperate for points and have a two-goal lead with one minute to play on the road that has to be two points 100 percent of the time.

27. Montreal Canadiens. I don’t know if Ilya Kovalchuk and Marco Scandella can fix this. What they really need is a healthy Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, and Brendan Gallagher.

28. Los Angeles Kings. The short-term outlook is very bleak for this team.

29 Anaheim Ducks. The only games they have been able to win for more than a month now are the occasional game that makes it to a shootout.

29. Ottawa Senators. Just watching to see where Jean-Gabriel Pageau ends up and how they deal with Anthony Duclair‘s breakout year offensively (contract extension or trade while his value is at its highest point?)

31. Detroit Red Wings. Right now you are just looking for young players to make some progress. Filip Zadina has shown some flashes this 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.

Big injury losses: Sabres’ Olofsson, Islanders’ Pelech

Pelech Olofsson injury
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The Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders began 2020 with some tough injuries. The Sabres expect Victor Olofsson to miss five-to-six weeks, while the Islanders lost Adam Pelech to a season-ending injury.

Let’s ponder these losses for each team, and the larger outlook for the Sabres and Isles.

Olofsson injury continues turbulent times for Sabres

Don’t blame Sabres fans if they feel like their heads are spinning right now.

Jack Eichel touched on what Olofsson’s absence might mean, as reported by The Athletic’s John Vogl:

Olofsson tops all NHL rookies in goals (16) and points (35), leading both categories by four. Olofsson’s Hockey Viz heat maps back up Eichel’s comments about the rookie’s all-around play:

The thinning of the Sabres isn’t ideal considering their competition.

The Bruins remain perched atop the Atlantic Division, while the Maple Leafs and Lightning look like they’re back to being scary opponents. The Panthers also have more standings points (47 to Buffalo’s 43) despite Florida playing two fewer games (40 versus the Sabres’ 42 games played). The Metro could produce four or even five playoff teams, so Buffalo faces a perilous path without Olofsson.

Islanders lose Pelech for regular season

The Athletic’s Arthur Staple reports that Pelech’s injury timeline is four months, opening up some possibility of a playoff return. The Islanders currently rank second in the Metro with 53 points, so Pelech’s recovery window could indeed become relevant.

The Islanders stumbled a bit to end 2019 (3-1-4 in their last eight). With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how they handle the loss of a workhorse who ranked second in both time on ice per game (21:08) and penalty kill reps (2:47 per game).

Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said that “you don’t replace an Adam Pelech at the trade deadline,” according to Staple, so Barry Trotz faces a challenge in dealing with this loss. Pelech is the type of player Trotz adores, especially going by these quotes from Kris Knoblauch, Pelech’s former OHL coach.

“He’s very undervalued and underappreciated,” Knoblauch said back in October, via Staple (sub required). “We relied on him a ton — he was our power-play defenseman, our shutdown guy. There’s a lot of calm to his game now and there was back then, too.”

Can the Islanders continue to insulate their goalies without Pelech? We’ll find out. Either way, the Sabres and Islanders both received some rough injury news on Friday.

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.

Sabres trade Scandella to Canadiens, acquire Frolik from Flames

Sabres
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The Buffalo Sabres have had a logjam on their blue line all season and it has long been assumed they would deal from that depth to try and address their forward situation.

They finally did that on Thursday night in two separate deals.

First, they sent defenseman Marco Scandella to the Montreal Canadiens for a 2020 fourth-round draft pick. That pick originally belonged to the San Jose Sharks.

They followed that deal by trading that same fourth-round pick to the Calgary Flames for forward Michael Frolik.

Let’s break all of this down team-by-team.

The Canadiens side

This is a pretty easy one to figure out. Scandella is a pretty significant upgrade to their top-six on defense and it cost them next to nothing to get him. Even after trading a fourth-round pick to Buffalo for him they still have 11 picks in the 2020 class including three in the fourth-round alone. They had the picks to spare, and Scandella, 29, should be a nice addition. He has three goals and six assists in 31 games this season and was one of Buffalo’s best players when it came to driving possession. His 52.8 Corsi mark was second-best on the team and tops among the team’s defenders. He will be eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

The Canadiens made another smaller move on Thursday, trading defenseman Mike Reilly to the Ottawa Senators for forward Andrew Sturtz and a 2021 fifth-round draft pick.

The Sabres side

The Scandella trade seemed a little weird at first glance. Yes, they needed to move a defenseman, and given his contract Scandella seemed to be a likely candidate. But trading him for a fourth-round pick this far ahead of the trade deadline seemed premature.

There had to be a corresponding move coming for it to make sense. That is where Frolik comes in. And once the dust settled they essentially traded Scandella for Frolik, which seems about right. Both players are unrestricted free agents after the season, the Sabres had too many defenders, and they badly needed help at forward, especially with Jeff Skinner sidelined.

Frolik is having a down year offensively (just five goals and five assists in 38 games), but he has been a safe bet for around 15 goals, 30 points, and great possession numbers throughout his career. There is a chance he can help them more than Scandella could in the short-term. Will that be enough to stop their slide and get back into a playoff spot? That remains to be seen.

The Flames side

The name of the game here is simply dumping salary and clearing salary cap space. They had been shopping Frolik for a while now and it was only a matter of time until they moved him. By doing so they shed some valuable salary cap space that could enable to make a more significant addition before the trade deadline. The trade also gives them a fourth-round pick, something they had been lacking. They now have seven draft picks this year.

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.

Wild’s Spurgeon 10 seasons into size-defying career

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The defining moment of Jared Spurgeon‘s hockey career came when he was just 13: His peewee coach in Edmonton moved him from forward to defenseman.

There was no going back for Spurgeon, even though he hasn’t grown much bigger since then. Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 167-pound stalwart on the blue line has been defying size stereotypes ever since.

”I just fell in love with the position,” Spurgeon said.

The Wild have felt the same way about him over the last 10 seasons. The 30-year-old Spurgeon, who set career highs in games (82), goals (14), assists (29), shots (152) and hits (91) during the 2019-19 season, signed a seven-year, $53 million contract extension at the beginning of training camp.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick the New York Islanders ultimately declined to sign, paving the way for a tryout with the Wild two years after he was drafted.

”Probably the best in the NHL at breaking the puck out. Unbelievable on his edges. One of the smartest players in the game,” said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella, who played with Spurgeon in Minnesota for seven seasons. ”He’s got a lot of things in his toolbox, and he doesn’t even need the size.”

Spurgeon, who is halfway through an expected two-week absence for a hand injury sustained while blocking a shot, has ranked over the last four years in the top 20 among NHL defensemen in goals, power play goals, blocked shots and time on ice.

”That’s one of those players that you’re just like, ‘How?’ ” Scandella said. ”You just have to watch him over a season. Play with him, and you understand how good he is.”

The ability to skate – and pass – quickly will always be critical for a player with Spurgeon’s frame. Part of that is being fast enough to elude opponents, but it also means maximizing his power by maintaining leverage and balance for the moments when he does initiate or absorb contact.

”You don’t need to be huge and massive to be strong on your skates,” said St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly, who faces Spurgeon frequently as a Central Division rival. ”You go in and forecheck, and he is so strong. It’s like going against a big guy.”

Awareness is just as important as fearlessness to succeed as a 5-foot-9 player, of course.

Spurgeon simply doesn’t get pushed around much because he’s rarely caught off guard by a big hit. The advantage of vision from the blue line, being able to see the plays develop in front of him, was one of the benefits that immediately drew Spurgeon to defense. He tried to emulate players who came before him like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle, sub-6-foot defensemen who were offensive threats but never a liability in their own zone.

”The emphasis of moving the puck and getting up ice and being able to contribute offensively as well is a whole lot different than it used to be, where maybe you had one of those guys before and a bunch of a big, mean guys,” Spurgeon said. ”But I think now the game is so fast that I think it gives the ability for smaller guys to play.”

According to Sportradar data, there are 41 defensemen who have appeared in at least one NHL game this season and are listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter. That number drops to 18 at 5-foot-10 or less and to six at 5-foot-9 and under.

In the 2005-06 season after the lockout, which brought rule changes to encourage more free-flowing action in the neutral zone and increase goal scoring, there were only 29 defensemen at 5-foot-11 or shorter, 11 at 5-foot-10 or less, and three at 5-foot-9 and under. Twenty years ago, there were fewer still: 22 players at 5-foot-11 or shorter, eight at 5-foot-10 or less, and just one at 5-foot-9 and under.

The Wild have two 5-foot-9 blue-liners with Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Boston’s Torey Krug is another standout in the club. Those lanky veterans around the league like St. Louis’ Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-6) and Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) have obvious advantages with reach and strength, but there’s plenty more to sound defense than being able to poke a stick at a puck.

”We have the quickness and the first two or three strides in order to close plays so that they don’t get the possession of the puck and move on. I think it’s just using our skating abilities,” Krug said. ”I think it’s been a long time coming, especially with the real changes in the way the game is trending. It’s funny, years ago to have one of those guys on your team, people kind of scoffed at that. Now we’ve got two and sometimes three in the lineup at once, and it creates really mobile back end.”

STREAKING

Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry had a franchise-record scoreless run of 177:15 that ended during a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Tuesday, just the second defeat in eight starts for the backup to Matt Murray. Jarry stopped 82 consecutive shots during the streak, the longest in the league this season.

SLUMPING

The Detroit Red Wings are sliding toward a four-year absence from the playoffs after the end of their famous 25-season streak of making it. The Red Wings are on a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2 since Nov. 12, and have the worst record in the NHL at 7-22-3. They’ve dropped 10 straight games in regulation by a 47-16 margin.