Mark Pysyk

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Which teams should take a chance on Andrei Markov?

After being away from the NHL for two seasons, Andrei Markov is ready to return to North America. He made that clear during an interview with the Montreal Gazette last month. The Russian blue liner left for the AK Bars Kazan of the KHL two seasons ago and he’s hoping an NHL team will take a chance on him now.

His preference would be to play out the final year of his career with the only NHL team he’s ever played for, the Montreal Canadiens, but that doesn’t appear to be likely at this point.

The 40-year-old needs to play just 10 more games to reach the 1,000 mark for his career. That’s an important milestone for him.

“It’s something you want to be there,” Markov said of reaching that plateau. “It’s important, you know. But most important probably is to try to play one more year in the NHL, to prove that I can still play in that level.”

But can Markov keep up with the current pace of play in the NHL?

After multiple knee surgeries, it became clear that he wasn’t ever going to be the fastest player on the ice anymore. But his hockey smarts were always his biggest asset. There weren’t too many players that thought the game better than Markov when he was at his best. Whether or not the body can still perform at a high level remains to be seen.

Markov was negotiating his own contract the last time he and the Habs failed to come to terms on an agreement (two summers ago), but he’s since hired Allan Walsh to be his agent.

“He’s certainly looking to play on a team where there’s a role for him,” Walsh told TSN 690 radio in Montreal last week. “We believe that he can really help any team’s power play, that he can contribute meaningful five-on-five minutes, that he can serve as a veteran presence in the room, and he’s always been known as a bit of a quiet guy but he’s also been known as a quiet leader. He’s always been in amazing physical shape in his entire career and he’s in great shape right now.”

Walsh went on to say that his new client isn’t looking to sign a PTO and he’s looking to play for a team that’s ready to win right away.

Keeping all that in mind, which teams would be the best fits for Markov? Let’s look at some options.

• San Jose Sharks: We know that the Sharks are top-heavy on their defense with players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but they also have Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brenden Dillon. The issue with San Jose last year was that they didn’t have enough depth to fill out their blue line every night. During the postseason, there were many nights when Joakim Ryan was playing less than 10 minutes per game (sometimes less than five minutes). Ryan is no longer there, but they now have Tim Heed, Dalton Prout and Radim Simek on the fold. Markov on an affordable contract could be an intriguing fit in San Jose.

• Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers’ defense is a little more crowded than San Jose’s right now, but there’s an obvious connection between their team and Markov’s camp. Of course, Markov played for assistant coach Michel Therrien for many years in Montreal and he also played part of a season for Alain Vigneault a long time ago. Again, the Flyers have young depth on the blue line, they added Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but maybe they can find a way to make it work.

Florida Panthers: Markov has spent a good chunk of the summer training in Florida, so he’s familiar with the area. The Panthers made it clear that they want to start winning with a little more regularity. That’s why they signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year deal this off-season. They also added Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman this summer. Aaron Ekblad, Michael Matheson, Keith Yandle and Stralman will make up the top four, but Mark Pysyk, MacKenzie Weegar, Ian McCoshen and Joshua Brown will battle for the five, six and seven spots on defense. There’s room for Markov if they believe he can play.

Nashville Predators: Like the Sharks, the Preds are also top-heavy on defense. Even after trading P.K. Subban away, they still have Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm. Youngster Dante Fabbro is also expected to play a big role in Nashville this season, so the top four is full. Beyond that, there are some question marks. Also, the Preds also owned the worst power play in the NHL last season. Could Markov help them improve in that area?

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 goalies do best to prepare for unexpected, unpredictable

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — NHL goaltenders prepare for the unexpected and unpredictable, ready for pucks deflecting off sticks, bodies, feet or even a divot in the ice past all the gear designed to help defend their net.

The freaky, fluky or simply weird goals can be laughed off by goalies who know sometimes the puck just takes a funny bounce.

The goals that eat away at a goalie are those he believes he could’ve – and should’ve – stopped. Not the goal allowed by Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin where the puck bounced off a Nashville forward’s back and over the net before hitting the back of the goalie’s helmet, then off his back and into the net.

”It stings anytime you give up a goal,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said Tuesday. ”That kind of goal, there’s nothing really he could’ve done. It’s a freaky goal, and I feel like those things maybe happen once, twice in a season. But yeah, the ones that hurt the most as a goalie, it’s the ones that you feel like you should’ve had it.”

Stick-handling in the NHL has improved right along with players’ speed and skating thanks to offseason workouts. That also has boosted the creativity for shooters looking to do a bit more than a simple slap shot, wrister or snap shot.

”There’s a lot of talent in the league, more maybe so now than there has been in years past,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”These young guys coming up, everybody has their own skills coaches and things like that. There’s a lot of skills. I don’t doubt there’s more highlight-reel goals.”

Goaltenders have to be ready for the next move dreamed up by the league’s stars to put the puck over the line. Scoring is up with the average number of goals scored per game increasing in each of the past four seasons, and the current average of 3.06 goals per game is on pace to be the highest since the 2005-06 season, according to Hockey-Reference.com

”Maybe it’s the skill of the players too, finding that one spot,” Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer said. ”(Evgeny) Kuznetsov in Washington, he’s so sneaky in terms of what he wants to do and doesn’t want to do. He puts the puck in spots. Maybe you get a weird bounce, hit a guy’s shin pad or something like that.”

The NHL also keeps downsizing goaltenders’ pads, most recently chest protectors . Grubauer sees teams also changing how they break out on offense, attacking faster and giving goalies less time.

”Back in the days, you always used to go back and regroup and break out as a unit,” Grubauer said. ”I feel like the last couple of years, it’s always like, (snaps fingers) and up (snaps fingers) and up.”

Sometimes goalies get lucky, too.

Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton appeared to be losing his balance Sunday in the first period against Winnipeg with Adam Lowry coming in on a short-handed breakaway. Hutton put his glove down at the exact moment Lowry tried to slip the puck between the goalie’s legs for the save.

”You definitely get some fluky saves where you’re beat and a guy just hits you,” Hutton said.

The Sabres goalie also recalls being on his goal line when the puck came up, rolled over the top of the net, hit his neck and went in. He had another puck slip past him on a penalty shot in December against Florida.

”You make the initial save, and it lands on my pads sideways and just slowly rolls off,” Hutton said. ”That’s one where if it’s during a game, a D-man’s probably there to stop it or that puck lands flat on my pad and doesn’t go in. It’s unfortunate that it lands sideways and rolls off my pad. So that’s one that I would say this year that’s been fluky.”

There’s one goal so weird it’s called the Butt Goal.

Defenseman Mark Pysyk, now with Florida, got his first goal of the 2013 season right before Christmas in overtime after jamming at the puck, sending it into the air and into the pants of Coyotes goalie Mike Smith who then backed into his own net.

”I didn’t think they would call it a goal, because I didn’t think they’d see it, but they did,” Pysyk said. ”It was in his pants and he backed in. I think you could see me point at it. They counted it a little bit after, obviously, so I didn’t have a chance to celebrate normally. It was pretty funny.”

SURPRISING ISLANDERS

The New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division in coach Barry Trotz’s first season despite losing John Tavares last offseason to Toronto. They just snapped a three-game streak Tuesday night with a 3-1 loss in Buffalo but are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and remain second overall in the Eastern Conference.

To Buffalo coach Phil Housley, credit Trotz using the same philosophy and structure from coaching in Nashville and winning the Stanley Cup with Washington last summer.

”I really had a pleasure to work with him for one year and learned a lot from him,” Housley said. ”You can see he’s had success wherever he’s went.”

RIVALRY SERIES

The best of women’s hockey are back at it this week with the United States and Canada playing each other in a rare three-game ”Rivalry Series” that ends Sunday in Detroit at the home of the Red Wings. The U.S. beat Canada nearly a year ago for Olympic gold and then won a fourth straight Four Nations Cup title last November. Kendall Coyne Schofield will be the U.S. captain for the series, which will be aired on NHL Network.

”That’s something we’ve been fighting for, is more chances for us to play against Canada,” U.S. forward Dani Cameranesi said. ”It’s not that often that we get to play at the highest level. We don’t really have that many chances for that, but for them all to be … on NHL Network too and for us to get coverage on that is a really big deal.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Washington Capitals visit the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night in a matchup of two of the NHL’s top 10 teams.

LEADERS (after Monday games)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 38; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 60; Points: Kucherov, 84; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:45; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 29; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.05; Save percentage: Robin Lehner, (N.Y. Islanders), .930.

PHT Power Rankings: 10 NHL people that need to be better in 2018-19

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It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look at 10 people around the NHL that need to have a better season in 2018-19.

A lot of general managers, coaches, and players had great performances during the 2017-18 season to help their teams.

Many of them were expected, some of them were not.

This week’s power rankings are not about them.

This week we look at 10 people around the NHL that, for one reason or another, really need to have a better performance during the 2018-19 season.

To the rankings!

1. Eugene Melynk, Ottawa Senators — It is almost remarkable the roller coaster of emotions Ottawa Senators fans have been on over the past two years, and sadly, just how hopeless the entire operation feels entering the 2018-19 season.

After coming out of nowhere to go on an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 — where they were in double overtime of Game 7, one shot away from the Stanley Cup Final — the entire organization completely imploded on itself over the year that followed.

On the eve of what should have been the biggest day of celebration for the team during the 2017-18 season — their outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens — team owner Eugene Melnyk threw the relocation threat out there, while also adding “I’m not going to blow a lifetime of working hard to support a hockey team.”

Erik Karlsson, the team’s best player, has been on the verge of being traded for a year now while Melnyk reportedly wanted to tie Bobby Ryan‘s contract to the trade, a decision that would no doubt lessen the return for the best player the franchise has ever seen all in the name of saving the owner some money.

The locker room was ripped apart after the fiance of former forward Mike Hoffman was accused of harassing the Karlssons following the death of their son, resulting in Hoffman, one of their two best forwards, being traded for some magic beans.

Assistant general manager Randy Lee resigned after he was charged with two counts of harassment at the scouting combine in Buffalo.

Even if Melnyk himself wasn’t responsible for all of this individually, it is a total dysfunctional mess of a franchise from the top on down (with an emphasis on the “top” part) and the owner has to take responsibility for that. All of it has resulted in Melnyk becoming the most loathed owner in any of the NHL’s 31 markets with fans consistently taking to social media to urge him to sell the team. What could he do to make things better for Senators fans in 2018-19? Selling the team might be a good start, but that doesn’t seem to be something that is in the cards. So maybe he could just … you know … try to be better in some small way? Anything, really. Maybe don’t threaten to move the team the night before the biggest game of the season? Start small, build up from that.

2. Todd McLellan, Edmonton Oilers — This spot could easily be filled McLellan or general manager Peter Chiarelli, but in fairness to Chilarelli, he has already showed signs that he might be doing better this year. For example, he hasn’t traded a core player in a lopsided one-for-one, he resisted the urge to sell defenseman Oscar Klefbom at his lowest value, he held on to the No. 10 overall pick and hopefully strengthened the defense long-term, and he didn’t sign any ridiculous contracts in free agency. Progress is progress.

That leaves McLellan who will no doubt be on the hot seat if things don’t improve dramatically in Edmonton this season, because you don’t get the luxury of missing the playoffs very often when you have the best player in hockey on your roster.

The most shocking development in Edmonton last season was probably the way the special teams completely sunk the team, finishing 31st on the power play and 26th on the penalty kill. McLellan assumed more responsibility over the PK in the second half of the season (where it did improve … a little) and he has an entirely new set of assistants around him, including former Swift Current Broncos coach Emanuel Viveiros, who comes with a reputation for being a strong offensive coach, and defensive specialist Trent Yawney. There won’t be any excuses for McLellan this season if things go south again.

3. Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens — Earlier this offseason I took an in-depth look at how Bergevin’s tenure has slowly but surely made the Canadiens franchise worse. Nothing has really changed since then. If anything, things seem to be on the verge of getting worse as the Max Pacioretty drama continues to rage on with a trade seemingly being a matter of when, and not if. Once it gets completed that means the Canadiens will have wasted the prime years of one of the league’s best goal scorers that has been playing for them on a laughably cheap, team friendly, bargain contract.

All Bergevin has done over the past few years is saddle the team with bad contracts, a suddenly aging core, and most recently gambled that Max Domi can be better than Alex Galchenyuk. He has fumbled some of his biggest trades and has one more massive one to make at some point over the next few months (Pacioretty). If he messes that one up it will set the Canadiens franchise back even further than it’s already been set back under his watch.

Good luck, everybody!

4. Scott Darling, Carolina Hurricanes — In an effort to solve their long-standing issues in net the Hurricanes traded for Darling before the 2017-18 season and committed to him with a four-year, $16.6 million contract to be their starting goalie. Year one of the deal was a disaster as Darling, one of the league’s best backups in Chicago over the previous three years, turned in one of the least productive performances from a starter in recent NHL history. Despite that performance, the Hurricanes seemingly doubled down on their commitment to Darling as their starter by letting Cam Ward leave in free agency and only signing Petr Mrazek (coming off a down year of his own in Detroit and Philadelphia) to a one-year contract to push him.

For the time being it seems to be Darling’s net and if the Hurricanes are going to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season he is going to have to be significantly bette than he was last season. The Hurricanes have definitely given him some help by assembling what should one of the league’s best defenses around him (they have been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league in recent years) and adding to it this summer with the acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan.

5. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks run of consecutive playoff appearances came to a sudden end this past season with one of the worst records in the NHL. It was a staggering fall for a team that is not that far removed from winning three Stanley Cups in six years, and just one year earlier finished with the third best record in the league and the best record in the Western Conference.

There were a lot of things that went wrong for the Blackhawks in 2017-18, from the injury to starting goalie Corey Crawford, to the fact that Jonathan Toews is now a $10 million per year second-line center (Sorry folks, it is true — at least based on his production).

One of the other big issues: General manager Stan Bowman’s quest to put the championship band back together backfired in a massive way. Along with re-acquiring Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks’ big move was trading Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Saad, just two years after the Blackhawks traded him away in a salary cap-clearing move. The latest trade was a disaster for the Blackhawks. Panarin not only showed that he could carry a line on his own without having Patrick Kane on the other side of the ice, but Saad struggled through the worst season of his career and was a colossal disappointment in his second stint with the Blackhawks. He managed just 17 goals and 35 points in 82 games, and somehow recorded just a single point in 174 minutes of power play time. It was, for lack of a better word, bad.

Given the Blackhawks’ lack of scoring depth and the fact their No. 1 center is now a 50-point player they are going to need a lot more from Saad in 2018-19 if they have any hope of returning to the playoffs in a suddenly competitive Central Division. The good news is that his underlying numbers (dominant possession numbers, a low shooting percentage for himself) point to a player that should be capable of bouncing back. Now he just has to do it.

6. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins — When Letang is on his game and at his best he is one of the most impactful defenders in the league. We saw him at his best during the 2015-16 season when he was a dominant force on the Penguins’ blue line on their run to winning the Stanley Cup, playing more than 28 minutes per night throughout the playoffs and scoring the Stanley Cup clinching goal, capping off a brilliant shift where he was a a one-man wrecking crew.

Unfortunately for Letang another significant injury during the following year robbed him of half of the season (including the entire postseason, where the Penguins would win another Stanley Cup) and didn’t allow him to get back on the ice until the start of the 2017-18 season. He was never quite the same player and struggled through one of the most inconsistent seasons of his career, highlighted by flashes of the dominance we’ve come to know from Letang, and stretches of play where he just didn’t seem to be himself. Harsh as it is to say, if he was one of the biggest reasons they won the Stanley Cup in 2016 (and he was), his performance was perhaps one of the biggest reasons they didn’t win it in 2018. Despite speculation that the Penguins could consider moving him in the offseason, he remains in Pittsburgh where the team is banking on his performance from this past season being a fluke that he can bounce back from. It is a smart bet to make because he is better than he showed this past season. If he bounces back the Penguins will once again be a force in the Eastern Conference and one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders.

7. Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers — A lot of general managers around the NHL were responsible for the immediate success of the first-year Vegas Golden Knights. None of them played a bigger role than Dale Tallon of the Florida Panthers when he sent Reilly Smith to Vegas in exchange for a draft pick and then allowing the Golden Knights to take Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft, while protecting the likes of Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on defense (the Panthers opted to protect four forwards and four defenders instead of five forwards and three defenders).

It was a head-scratching move at the time it was made (Marchessault was the team’s top offensive player the year before, and while Smith had a down year and carried a big contract, he was still a productive player with a decent track record in the NHL) and became even worse when Marchessault and Smith helped lead Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Panthers ended up missing the playoffs by a single point following a late-season surge up the standings. Even with the addition of Evgenii Dadonov (a very good move) that one series of roster transactions probably kept the Panthers out of a playoff spot. This offseason the Panthers acquired Mike Hoffman after his ugly exit from Ottawa and signed Troy Brouwer to fill a bottom-six role. Will those be enough to get the Panthers back in the playoffs?

8. The Travis HamonicT.J. Brodie pairing — Okay maybe this is cheating to include two players in here as one entry, but hear me out on this.

On paper the Calgary Flames were supposed to have one of the best top-four defensive pairings in the NHL last season after adding Hamonic to a group that already included the perpetually underrated Mark Giordano, Brodie, and young star Dougie Hamilton.

It did not go as planned, especially when it came to the second pairing of Hamonic and Brodie, a duo that badly struggled during the season. They spent more than 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together where the Flames were outscored by seven goals (33-40) and controlled just a little more than 50 percent of the total shot attempts. When neither player was on the ice the Flames were a 55 percent shot attempt team were only outscored by a pair of goals (90-92).

Now Hamilton is gone (traded as part of a package for Noah Hanifan), Giordano is a year older, and the Flames are going to need these two to be significantly better to make up for all of that.

(H/T Todd Cordell and Natural Stat Trick for those numbers)

9. Brian Elliott, Philadelphia Flyers — With Claude Giroux back to being an elite scorer, an impressive young core of forwards and defenders starting to make their presence felt in the NHL, and the return of James van Riemsdyk, one of the league’s top goal scoring wingers, the Philadelphia Flyers are now back to the point where their roster looks really, really impressive with one very large exception.

Stop me if you have heard this before, but … goaltending might be the only thing that holds the Flyers back from taking another big step this season.

Elliott’s career has been as unpredictable as any other goalie in the league (which is really saying something at a position that is largely defined by its unpredictability) as he has gone from leading the league in save percentage at times, to being benched and traded away. He was okay at times last season, and he is ideally just a placeholder until Carter Hart is ready to take over the job, but the Flyers have a chance to be something more than the mediocre team they have been for the past six years if they can get something that resembles even average goaltending.

10. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins — As an outsider, watching the city of Boston collectively eat itself alive over the performance of Tuukka Rask is a remarkably entertaining thing to watch. As an observer of the game of hockey it is also a little maddening. Honestly I wasn’t even sure if I should include Rask on this ranking because he’s still a pretty darn good goalie that a great team can win with.

He didn’t even have a bad season a year ago.

Is he as good as he was five or six years ago? Probably not, and his personal numbers illustrate that. He is, however, still good. Really good.

But every time he doesn’t single handedly win the Bruins a big game the sky falls in around him and a city of spoiled rotten sports fans and media that think it is their god-given right to win every championship, in every sport, every year lose their minds and need to find a scapegoat. Lately, that scapegoat for the Bruins is almost always Tuukka Rask. For that reason alone Rask could use a better season, just to save himself from that madness and to salvage his reputation in Boston. It is unfair, but so are sports.

Now there is even offseason talk that the addition of Jaroslav Halak could challenge Rask for playing time, or perhaps even push Rask out of town.

Which is just … you know what? Maybe Boston deserves that.

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.

Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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After completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights began Wednesday as the new favorites to win the Stanley Cup, at least according to the folks at Bovada.

Whether they actually do it doesn’t really matter at this point because this season is already one of the most stunning stories in North American sports history. A first-year expansion team finishing the regular season as one of the best teams in the league, winning its division, and then blowing through an organization in the first round that just a couple of years ago was one of the elite powers in the league is the stuff that gets turned into movies.

The popular consensus on how this all happened always seems to go back to the expansion draft and the rules that opened Vegas up to more talent than any first-year team in league history.

In all fairness to the teams that preceded them, Vegas certainly had an advantage in that area.

It still should not have resulted in a team this good, this fast.

The fact it happened is not an indictment on the rules the league put in place to aid Vegas in becoming an immediate success.

It is an indictment on the NHL’s 30 other general managers, the way they build their teams, the way analyze and value their own talent, and what they value.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The NHL begins to make a lot more sense if you just go into every season with the mindset that nobody really understands what they’re doing, what will happen, or why it will happen, and that everything is just random.

Maybe that’s overstating things. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe there a lot of variables that go into moves that get made (or do not get made), but every year otherwise smart people that have been around the game forever make inexplicably dumb transactions that just look like a mistake the second they get completed. The 2017-18 season was a treasure trove for this sort of thing. Look no further than the Artemi Panarin trade, or the fact that Taylor Hall is probably winning the MVP one year after being run out of Edmonton.

The expansion draft also exposed a lot of the sometimes backwards thinking that goes on around the NHL.

To be fair, there were some teams that were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to protecting assets in the expansion draft. A lot of teams were going to lose a good player through no fault of their own, other than the fact they had too many good players to protect.

Nashville comes to mind as one. The Predators needed to protect four defensemen (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis) which meant a really good forward was going to be left exposed. Maybe you can quibble with the fact they chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok over James Neal, but their decision makes sense. Jarnkrok is $3 million cheaper under the cap this season (that extra cap space would come in handy for moves that followed — signing Nick Bonino, trading for Kyle Turris) and signed long-term, while Neal was probably going to leave after this season anyway as an unrestricted free agent.

Pittsburgh was definitely going to lose a good goalie (it turned out to be Marc-Andre Fleury).

Washington was definitely going to have to lose a good defenseman or a good goalie (it turned out to be Nate Schmidt).

Anaheim was kind of stuck because it had to protect Kevin Bieksa (no-move clause) which meant it had to leave Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen exposed. So the Ducks gave Vegas Shea Theodore to entice them to take Clayton Stoner, leaving Manson and Vatanen in Anaheim. That was a lot to give up, but Manson is a really good player and Vatanen was used as the trade chip to acquire Adam Henrique from the New Jersey Devils when the Ducks quite literally ran out of centers.

Vegas was able to get a solid foundation out of that. Fleury has been everything they could have hoped for him to be and probably more. Had he not missed so much time due to a concussion, he might have been a Vezina Trophy finalist (he probably could have been anyway), and he just dominated the Kings in the first-round. Neal scored 25 goals in 71 games, while Theodore and Schmidt look like solid young pieces to build their blue line around.

Those players alone weren’t enough to turn Vegas into an overnight Stanley Cup contender. Other than Fleury, none of them were really the most important pieces on this year’s team.

So who is most responsible for what happened in Vegas?

[Related: Golden Knights sweep Kings, becomes first team to advance to second round]

Let’s start with the St. Louis Blues, a team that has seemingly escaped criticism for the way they handled the expansion draft which resulted in them losing David Perron.

In his first year with the Golden Knights, Perron went on to finish with 16 goals and 50 assists in 70 games and was one of their top offensive players. While his production increased from what it was in recent years, Perron has still been a 20-goal, 50-point player in the NHL with a really high skill level. He’s a good player. Sometimes a really good player.

The Blues decided that it was more important to protect Ryan Reaves and Vladimir Sobotka over him. Why? Who knows. Maybe the Blues soured on Perron because he had a bad playoff run a year ago (which would be dumb). Maybe they figured they weren’t going to re-sign him after this season and he was going to leave as a free agent (more sensible). But even if it was the latter, protecting Sobotka, and especially Reaves, over him just seems like misplaced priorities.

“But Adam,” you might be saying. “The Blues had to protect Reaves so they could trade him a week later at the draft to the Penguins to move up 20 spots in the draft where they selected Klim Kostin, and he’s a really good prospect! It worked!”

Fair. Fair point.

But do you really think Vegas was going to select Reaves over the other players the Blues had exposed? I know Reaves later ended up in Vegas, but that was mostly due to the Penguins having to send a warm body their way in an effort to re-work that convoluted Derick Brassard trade. Reaves barely played once he arrived in Vegas and may never see the ice in the playoffs. And beyond that, St. Louis traded Jori Lehtera to Philadelphia three days after the expansion draft for Brayden Schenn and didn’t feel the need to protect him in order to preserve that trade.

It was just bizarre asset management to protect two bottom-six players over a top-six winger.

Then there’s Minnesota, who ended up trading Alex Tuch — who was a 2014 first-round pick — to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Erik Haula.

Where teams like Minnesota come away looking bad is that, 1) They may have given up more than they had to in an effort to protect other players, and 2) Not really realizing what they had in previous years.

Tuch, playing in his first full NHL season at age 21, scored 15 goals for Vegas while Haula went on to score 29 goals in 76 games, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Minnesota was another team in kind of a tough spot. It had to protect Jason Pominville (no-trade clause) and one of the players left unprotected as a result was Eric Staal, who went on to score 40 goals this season in Minnesota. They also left a couple of solid defensemen exposed.

Back in November, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote about the anatomy of the deal that sent Tuch and Haula to Vegas and the thought process for both teams. According to Russo, general manager Chuck Fletcher’s approach was to clear salary cap space (which was necessary) while also protecting his defenseman so he could trade one for forward help.

All of that ended up happening. Vegas didn’t take a defenseman, and the Wild eventually traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. When combined with losing Haula (who ended up signing for $2.75 million per season) the Wild definitely cleared a lot of salary cap space. They also ended up getting the short-end of the trade-off talent wise when you consider what Haula and Tuch did. Together Foligno and Ennis scored 16 goals this season.

Tuch scored 15 on an entry-level contract and Haula scored 29.

Here’s where Minnesota is deserving of some criticism: Why wasn’t Haula scoring 29 goals for them? Why didn’t they realize what they had in him, and maybe given themselves a reason to keep him instead of giving him away to protect someone else? Or, perhaps having a trade asset that could have actually brought them something meaningful in return if they had to lose him. Over the past two years Haula was getting third-or and at times fourth-line minutes for the Wild and still scoring 15 goals.

On a per-minute basis he was consistently one of their most productive players. Before you write off his 29-goal season this year as a fluke, just look at what he was doing individually during 5-on-5 play.

Kind of the same. The big difference this season is that in Vegas he had the opportunity to play 18 minutes per night instead of 12 minutes per night. Keep in mind that last year Minnesota had Haula on their roster and decided it had to trade for Martin Hanzal (giving up first-and second-round draft picks) and then gave him more minutes than Haula over the final 20 regular season games and playoffs.

It’s your job as a GM to know what you have. The Wild had Haula and wasted him, then willingly gave him away plus another pretty good young forward.

Then there is Columbus, who traded William Karlsson and a first-round draft pick in an effort to rid itself of David Clarkson‘s contract and to protect Josh Anderson and their backup goalie. Karlsson, of course, went on to score 40 goals. I’m skeptical that Karlsson will ever come close to duplicating this season, and I’m a little hesitant to really fault them too much here because nobody should have expected this sort of a breakout from Karlsson at this point in his career. But the optics are certainly bad when you look at who Columbus was trying to protect.

That, finally, brings us to Florida’s contribution to the Golden Knights roster, and with every passing day and every goal that Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith produce it becomes more and more indefensible.

And it was never really defensible.

The Panthers were looking to shed Smith’s $5 million per year contract and were able to trade him to Vegas for a fourth-round pick. In return, Florida would also leave Marchessault, quite literally their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, unprotected as payment for taking Smith’s contract. Wanting to get out of Smith’s contract on its own wasn’t a terrible thought. It was pricey and he was coming off of a down year. But there had to be a better way to do it than by trading a player as good as Marchessault (no contract is untradeable).

Especially when Florida only protected four forwards and instead opted to protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on the blue line.

Vegas was always going to get some solid players out of the expansion draft, but where would it be this season without Perron, Marchessault, Smith, Haula, Tuch, and Karlsson, players that their former teams all willingly gave away when they did not need to? They would not be playing in the second round of the playoffs, that is for certain.

But that’s not the only thing that Vegas exposed this season.

They went into the big, bad Pacific Division where all of the big, bad big boy hockey teams play and basically skated circles around them.

How many times have you heard somebody say that you need to be big and tough to compete with those teams in the Pacific and their brand of heavy hockey?

Edmonton, for example, has spent three years trying to build a team in that image, wasting Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract in the process.

Now, look at the roster Vegas assembled.

They entered the year in the bottom-10 of the league in both height and weight and were the smallest team in the Pacific Division.

Of the top-200 tallest players in the NHL, only four of them played in Vegas this season.

Of the top-200 heaviest players in the NHL, only six of them played in Vegas this season.

Even those numbers are a little misleading because a lot of the Vegas players on that list barely played. Reaves was in both the top-200 in height and weight and played 20 games for them. Jason Garrison was in there, and he played eight games, as did Stefan Matteau.

It’s a speed game today and with a clean slate, able to build their team in any way they saw fit, Vegas smartly embraced where the league is and where it is going.

The Golden Knights were definitely given a pretty good hand in the beginning, and they deserve credit for taking advantage of that.

They also exposed one of the biggest market inefficiencies in the NHL. That inefficiency being that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

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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.

Struggling Panthers want to keep gang together

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If you want a sign of a GM/front office with power, observe moments when a marginal player gets a somewhat bafflingly long contract extension.

On one hand, congrats to Colton Sceviour, who surely works hard for the three-year extension he signed today; it’s reportedly worth $1.2 million per year, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. He’s getting rewarded for being a diligent penalty killer, and this should help him limit the risk of becoming a “journeyman” player.

Still, it’s a little confounding that the Florida Panthers would be so compelled to lock up yet another piece of a roster that’s not exactly setting the world on fire.

You see successful teams fall into this sort of trap quite often. The Detroit Red Wings roster is littered with questionable decisions for non-core guys; you might gasp at remaining years for Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, and Luke Glendening.

At least those teams were trying to perpetuate past successes, though.

The Panthers, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff series since their improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, and even with bargain contracts for fantastic players in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck, it’s tough to say if they’re much closer today. They’ve only made it to the playoffs twice in the last six seasons, and only four times since that John Vanbiesbrouck-fueled run.

You’d think this team would be light on commitments as something of a message to players to “earn” their deals, but instead there are a ton of players locked up to lengthy deals.

[Can the Panthers still make a playoff run?]

Again, in the case of Barkov, Huberdeau, and Trocheck, that’s a very good thing. Barkov and Huberdeau are absolute steals at $5.9 million per year, with Huberdeau covered until 2022-23, while Barkov’s locked up until 2021-22.

Still, it’s a little unsettling how “locked in” this team is, what with Florida almost certain to miss the playoffs once again.

Forwards signed through at least 2019-20:

Huberdeau ($5.9M through 2022-23), Barkov ($5.9M, 2021-22), Trocheck ($4.75M through 2021-22), Nick Bjugstad ($4.1M through 2020-21), Evgeni Dadonov ($4M through 2019-20), and Sceviour ($1.2M through 2020-21).

Defensemen signed through at least 2019-20:

Aaron Ekblad ($7.5M through 2024-25), Keith Yandle ($6.35M through 2022-23), Michael Matheson ($4.875M though 2025-26), and Mark Pysyk ($2.73M through 2019-20).

Both goalies locked up with considerable term:

Roberto Luongo (eternal $4.5M through 2021-22) and James Reimer ($3.4M through 2020-21).

***

Yikes, right?

Again, the Panthers’ roster construction looks a lot like that of a team in the middle of a championship window, where they’ve had to take on some risky contracts to reward successes. Only, the successes have been minimal in Florida. It’s tough not to think back to GM Dale Tallon commenting on being fully in control again, and then to observe what looks like a risk-heavy roster.

To be fair, there are some real bargains on this team, and they’ve shown flashes of brilliance even during a couple of dire years. They’ve also dealt with injuries to both Luongo and Reimer. While Bobby Lou might simply be in that phase of his career, you’d hope Reimer will enjoy better luck in the future. Oddly enough for a team with such lengthy, pricey investments in goalies, they might want to ponder another option, especially if Luongo is charting a course toward the LTIR in the future.

Beyond that, the Panthers need to get the most out of an expensive defense. That starts with Ekblad, who signed a mammoth deal that won’t be easy to live up to. Still, if he can make strides during his career, it will be much easier to stomach, especially since Florida is saving with other marquee guys at forward.

[Tallon is focused on the future]

All things considered, Tallon & Co. can salvage this, likely by finding decent bargains around those pricey core players, and also by making sure that they’re making the most out of coaching and development.

So it’s not all bad, yet it’s a bit head-scratching to realize just how many players have long-term security on a team that’s seemingly stuck in puck purgatory, year after year.

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.