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Parity making NHL teams more willing to fire coaches early

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By STEPHEN WHYNO (AP Hockey Writer)

Peter Chiarelli didn’t feel like he could wait another day.

The Edmonton general manager didn’t sleep well after another tough loss, put the wheels in motion to replace coach Todd McLellan with Ken Hitchcock and made the move on Tuesday – a game day. After no in-season coaching changes around the NHL last season, there have now been four in less than three weeks.

The standings are still so close and volatile that it’s almost never too soon to decide to fire an NHL coach.

”Unfortunately as it is, that’s the way it’s trending,” Chiarelli said. ”The margins are thin and you look for edges and that’s one of them.”

Los Angeles fired John Stevens on Nov. 4, Chicago fired three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville two days later, St. Louis dismissed Mike Yeo late Monday and Edmonton followed suit with McLellan on Tuesday morning. The Kings had played 13 games, the Blackhawks 15, the Blues 19 and the Oilers 20, but it is no longer surprising to see such a drastic move before the quarter mark of the season.

Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens, now an NHL Network analyst, won the Stanley Cup as a player after a late-season coaching change and took over as co-head coach with New Jersey during the 2014-15 season. He said he was only caught off-guard by Quenneville’s firing and understands why so many GMs are pulling the trigger so early.

”I think a lot of times the GM has the pulse of everything that’s going on and knows when the time’s right to make that move,” Stevens said. ”I believe every team thinks they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. … Everyone feels they have a chance to win, and sometimes you just need a little luck.”

Or at least a big change.

”You can’t trade every player, so they fire the coach to try to get everybody’s attention,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said.

The calendar got Chiarelli’s attention because Thanksgiving typically serves as a barometer of which teams will make the playoffs. It’s an uphill climb for Hitchcock, the Kings’ Willie Desjardins , Blackhawks’ Jeremy Colliton and Blues’ Craig Berube to try to lift their teams out of rough starts and make it.

Sometimes, interim or replacement coaches are wildly successful after arriving during the season. The Penguins in 2009 with Dan Bylsma and 2016 with Mike Sullivan and the Kings in 2012 with Darryl Sutter won the Cup. The Flyers in 2010 with Peter Laviolette reached the final.

McGuire, himself a midseason replacement with the Hartford Whalers in the 1990s, said he believes this recent run of firings has something to do with the Vegas Golden Knights reaching the final last season as an expansion team, causing frustration around the league about quick results. Still, early-season coach firings are a time-tested part of the NHL.

”Coaching changes right around this time made huge differences,” McGuire said. ”People look at this over history and they say this can happen. Pittsburgh and L.A. are good examples of that.”

UPPER HAND SHORTHANDED

The Arizona Coyotes have killed off a league-best 91.7 percent of power plays, and their 10 short-handed goals are six more than the next-closest team. Michael Grabner has four, Brad Richardson three and Arizona has only allowed five power-play goals through its first 19 games.

Coach Rick Tocchet said Grabner, Richardson and his other penalty killers have done an excellent job of applying pressure with three players and the fourth making smart reads to take it the other way.

”Especially for PK guys, they really have a good hockey IQ on knowing when to attack pressure,” Tocchet said. ”The guys have done a nice job, like Richardson and Grabner especially, of making really good reads on when there’s a time to pressure and where that read is going to be. Sometimes you guess wrong but I think this year we’ve done a nice job guessing right.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals on Saturday visit the New York Rangers, who have been among the league’s biggest surprises under first-year coach David Quinn.

LEADERS

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 17; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 24; Points: Rantanen, 32; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:53; Save percentage: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), .942; Goals-against average: Rinne, 1.69.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s most impactful offseason additions so far

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at how your team’s biggest offseason acquisition has performed through the first quarter of the season.

Who has been an impact player? Who has exceeded expectations? Who has failed to meet expectations?

This is by no means a final grade or a definitive statement on the move itself; it is more of an initial progress report to see what the early returns are. Things can still change the rest of this season and in future seasons.

We also tried to limit this to the *big* signings/trades. Players that were involved in bigger, multi-player trades and free agents that were signed to multi-year, long-term contracts since those are the moves that carry the most risk for teams.

So let us get to the rankings.

The impact additions

1. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres — The Sabres desperately needed a player like Skinner, and they didn’t really have to give up a ton to get him. He has given Jack Eichel a legitimate front-line running mate on his wing, while Eichel has given him an All-Star playmaking center. Neither player has ever had a linemate like the other in their careers, and the early results have been stellar for a Sabres team that is starting to look … kind of good.

2. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — When you sign a seven-year, $77 million contract to join the Toronto Maple Leafs and be what they hope is the missing piece for a championship team, there is going to be a ton of pressure to go with sky-high expectations. So far, Tavares has been just what the Maple Leafs hoped he would be. Entering play on Monday he is better than a point-per-game player and has given them the luxury of still having a No. 1 center even while Auston Matthews is sidelined.

[Related: Tavares living up to hype with Matthews out]

3. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues — A shutdown center that is, as of Monday, on a 104-point pace this season offensively. Will he maintain that pace over 82 games? No way, but he has still been the Blues’ best player this season by a mile. They gave up a lot of assets to get him, but it was a definite quantity over quality trade. It is not his fault the team has failed to meet expectations.

Better than expected so far … will it last?

4-5. Max Domi and Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens — I admit it, I thought the Canadiens’ offseason was a disaster and was going to be another step backwards for the organization. Maybe in time it will still play out that way. So far, though, everything general manager Marc Bergevin touched over the summer has somehow turned to gold. A lot of Domi’s early success is tied to a 24 percent shooting percentage that is going to come down, but he has at least rebounded from back-to-back down years in Arizona.

Speaking of rebounds, Tomas Tatar is showing that he is still a really good player and that his post-trade deadline struggles with the Vegas Golden Knights were a fluke. Do not expect him to maintain this current scoring pace, but he is a proven 20-25 goal scorer in the NHL and should once again be at that level this season, even if his production regresses a bit the rest of the way.

6. Mike Hoffman, Florida Panthers — His production has been remarkably consistent through the first quarter of the season with a 15-game point streak entering the week. He has not had a truly dominant game (two points is his season high) but entering Monday he has had at least one point in all but two games this season (the first two games of the season).

[Related: Can Max Domi continue current pace?]

7. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — During his time in Carolina Lindholm was a top-five pick that was just simply good, but nothing really special. His career high in goals? 17. His career high in points? 45. Certainly not a bust, but also not really an impact player. Through his first 20 games in Calgary he has erupted offensively and is a point-per-game performer and on pace to shatter all of his previous career highs. On one hand, he is still only 23 years old and should be, in theory, entering his peak years in the NHL. On the other hand, that 21.6 shooting percentage is set for a big fall in the second half.

8. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — I still think if the Bruins are going to win the Stanley Cup — or at least seriously compete for it — they are going to have Tuukka Rask in net for it. Right now, though, Halak has been the best goalie in Boston and has been a huge surprise with a .935 save percentage and a 7-2-2 record entering play on Monday. After a disastrous season with the Islanders in 2017-18, and in his age 33 season, this is a pretty stunning performance.

Not quite what we expected (yet), but still pretty good

9. Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks — The offensive production has not been what we have come to expect from Karlsson, but that does not mean he has been bad. When he is on the ice the Sharks are controlling more than 59 percent of the total shot attempts and more than 55 percent of the scoring chances that take place. Those are dominant numbers. The offense will eventually come and like many of the players on the Sharks at the moment he is getting crushed by lackluster goaltending. I would be willing to wager that by the end of the season he would be near the top of such a ranking.

10. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes — Pretty much the same story as Karlsson. Probably been a lot better than his traditional box score numbers would indicate and getting hurt by bad goaltending.

11. Ilya Kovalchuk, Los Angeles Kings — He has shown flashes of still being able to be a dominant top-line player, and also flashes of being a 35-year-old that had not played in the NHL in more than five years. He alone was never going to be enough to fix what ailed this team, but he is still on pace for 20 goals and 60 points this season. That pretty much makes him an offensive powerhouse in relation to the rest of the players in Los Angeles.

What should have been expected

12-13. Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk, Arizona Coyotes — They have been nice additions for a Coyotes team that should be able to threaten for a playoff spot in a weak Pacific Division. Galchenyuk missed some time at the start of the year but now that he is healthy is on track for another season around 20 goals and 50 points, while Grabner has been a tremendous addition to the team’s lethal penalty kill unit that has helped drive their early start.

14. Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres — He was never going to repeat his performance from a year ago when he finished with the league’s best save percentage. While it would have been great for the Sabres if he somehow managed that, they mainly just needed him to be competent and give them a chance to win on most nights. He has done that.

[Related: The Sabres are good]

14-15. David PerronTyler Bozak, St. Louis Blues — The Blues needed scoring depth and spent big money this summer to try and find it. O’Reilly has played at an All-Star level, while their two big free agent acquisitions — Perron and Bozak — are producing at about the level you would expect David Perron and Tyler Bozak to perform at. Are they game-changers? No. But if the Blues’ goaltending situation was not the total dumpster fire it has been so far the team would would probably have a few more wins and all of their offseason additions would look a lot better.

The disappointments

16. Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights —  Pacioretty has simply not produced the way anyone expected him to. He had a down year in Montreal in 2017-18, and so far this season has seen his production fall off even more. It has to be even more frustrating at the moment for Vegas when you look at Tomas Tatar — traded for Pacioretty, along with top prospect Nick Suzuki — scoring for the Canadiens the way Vegas hoped he would score for them when they gave up a boatload of draft picks for him at the trade deadline.

17. James Neal, Calgary Flames — Just a total non-factor in every area for the Flames so far. Hopefully for the Flames it is just a poorly time slump at the start of a new contract because they are paying too much money over too many years for this level of production.

18. Jack Johnson, Pittsburgh Penguins — This was a questionable signing — at best — from the very beginning, and so far the results are everything critics of the deal thought they would be. Not good.

Jury is still out/Incomplete

James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia FLyers — He has only played in four games this season due to injury, but he looked really good in those games and seemed to be just what they needed to improve their scoring depth. When healthy he has been one of the top goal scorers in the league for a couple of years now, and he probably still has a couple years of that remaining when he is healthy. He just has not been healthy for the Flyers yet.

Paul Stastny, Vegas Golden Knights — Along with Pacioretty he was supposed to help give the Golden Knights a second dominant scoring line to go along with their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. Pacioretty has struggled mightily so far and Stastny has appeared in just three games due to injury. He also does not appear to be close to returning. Too soon to call him (or Pacioretty, for that matter) a total bust, but the early results are not what Vegas was hoping for. Both due to bad luck (Stastny’s injury) and just all-around disappointing play (Pacioretty).

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

The Buzzer: Point’s 91 second hat trick; Kinkaid ties NHL-lead with third shutout

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Three stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

Three goals in 91 seconds, all on the power play. What a night and what a way to score your first career hat trick.

Point becomes the second fastest player to score three goals on the power play after the late, great Jean Beliveau (he did it in 44 seconds back in 1955). He also now ranks sixth all-time in terms of the fastest hat-trick.

Point also shot up the goal-scoring rankings for this season, now sitting in a tie for third place with 12 goals. Oh, and the Lightning bested the Penguins 4-3 to boot.

2. Anthony Beauvillier, New York Islanders

Beauvillier scored his first career hat trick and added an assist in 7-5 Islanders win against the New York Rangers.

Beauvillier had just one goal coming into the game and no assists. His first apple of the season came on Leo Komarov‘s third-period goal, which stood as the game winner.

Perhaps Thursday’s game will get Beauvillier going again. He had 21 goals in 71 games last season but had just one tally through 16 games entering Thursday.

3. Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils

The man known as ‘Blockaid’ on Twitter lived up to his handle on Thursday night, steering aside all 29 shots he faced from the Philadelphia Flyers in a 3-0 win.

Kinkaid is now tied for the NHL lead in shutouts at three with Marc-Andre Fleury. It wasn’t just a standard, run-of-the-mill night for Kinkaid, either. As you will see below, Kinkaid had to pull out a miraculous save to preserve the goose egg.

Other notable performances

  • Nikita Kucherov assisted on all three of Point’s goals.
  • Patric Hornqvist was great for the Penguins, scoring a brace and adding an assist in a losing effort.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 34-of-35 in a 2-1 win for the Ottawa Senators at home to Detroit, including shutting the door on two penalty shots within seconds of each other.
  • Michael Grabner scored his league-leading fourth shorty of the year and the 10th of the season for the Coyotes. The league record for more shorthanded goals in a season is 36. Arizona is well on their way to eclipsing that.
  • Speaking of Arizona, Darcy Kuemper was a bloody stud on Thursday, stopping 44-of-45 shots he faced — a new career high — in a 2-1 win against the Nashville Predators. Twelve of his saves came on on the penalty kill and he took a penalty himself for good measure.
  • Mikko Koivu was gifted a goal and added two helpers as the Minnesota Wild ran over the Vancouver Canucks 6-2.
  • Cary Price made 43 saves to help the Montreal Canadiens to a 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames.
  • Mitch Marner assisted on the game-winner and then put the game to bed with his sixth of the season as the Toronto Maple Leafs prevailed in a 5-3 win against the San Jose Sharks.

Highlights of the night

Kinkaid’s shutout-preserving save:

Point’s hatty:

Beauvillier’s hatty:

You always remember your first time:

Factoids

Scores

Islanders 7, Rangers 5

Devils 3, Flyers 0

Lightning 4, Penguins 3

Blue Jackets 7, Panthers 3

Senators 2, Red Wings 1

Wild 6, Canucks 2

Canadiens 3, Flames 2

Coyotes 2, Predators 1

Maple Leafs 5, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Maple Leafs shine harsh light on Devils’ struggles

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As part of the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame ceremonies, Martin Brodeur was on hand to see the New Jersey Devils get dominated in a way he didn’t have to experience all that often during his vaunted, record-breaking career.

The Toronto Maple Leafs dominated much of the play on Friday, ultimately stomping the Devils to the tune of a 6-1 win, giving Mike Babcock’s Buds three consecutive victories.

The Devils frequently struggled when it came to limiting the Maple Leafs’ attack, which was deadly even as Auston Matthews remains on the shelf. John Tavares got on the board, but it was really a team effort for Toronto.

The Devils came roaring into 2018-19 with a four-game winning streak, prompting optimism that maybe last season was the start of something special, rather than an example of a team playing over its head.

On Friday, Keith Kinkaid and the Devils were instead in over their heads:

It’s the sort of night that got people trolling Kinkaid for his fabulous knack for post-game emoji analysis:

Things haven’t exactly been going swimmingly for the Devils in recent weeks. New Jersey fell 7-3 to the Senators on Tuesday, so they’ve really been springing leaks defensively. After a heartening 4-0-0 start, the Devils have lost eight of their last 10 games, watching their overall record tumble to 6-7-1.

Beginning the season on such a strong note should reduce the urge to panic, especially New Jersey’s Metropolitan Division rivals aren’t exactly throwing together hot streaks, either.

It’s not the largest sample size, yet with all those caveats, you wonder if Devils head coach John Hynes might be wise to make some tweaks. As this breakdown from About the Jersey points out, Taylor Hall has been struggling a bit at even-strength early on, adding credence to concerns that the reigning Hart Trophy winner might not be able to carry the Devils to the same lofty heights as last season.

(Going on that run felt quite a bit like a tightrope walk, as Hall truly willed a flaw [but often fun] Devils team to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.)

Granted, it’s not necessarily the end of the world if the Devils really hit the wall this season.

Instead of overreacting to the Devils overachieving last season by making a bunch of risky, possibly recklessly expensive additions in free agency, GM Ray Shero instead mostly stood pat. He probably could have brought Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner back, but instead showed discipline.

(As much as Hall could use more help, do note that the St. Louis Blues made Maroon a healthy scratch on Friday.)

Kinkaid has been a pleasant surprise in net extending back to last season, yet it’s unlikely that he’s the type of goalie who can steal wins all year long. And, again, as fantastic as Hall usually is, he can only do so much.

There are still reasons to be positive about the Devils’ potential to build a contender around Hall. This stretch merely argues that there also may be some growing pains before they can make the leap from a hit-or-miss squad to a more lasting contender, something they haven’t been since Brodeur hung up his pads.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Coyotes’ penalty kill has been incredible

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The Arizona Coyotes dropped a 5-4 overtime decision to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night. In the end, it had to be a mostly disappointing result given that they entered the third period with a two-goal lead, but they were still able to collect another point and are now 6-2-1 in their past nine games after winning just one of their first five.

Still a lot of good news if you are a Coyotes fan when it comes to the big picture outlook for the season.

One of the biggest reasons they were able to collect another point on Thursday was yet another incredible performance by their penalty killing unit which might be, through the first month of the season, the single most impressive unit in the league.

They not only killed off all three Flyers’ power plays on the night, but they also scored two more shorthanded goals. Those two shorthanded goals came on the same penalty kill in the second period, and were just 23 seconds apart.

On its own that would be an incredible performance, even if just for one game. But the Coyotes have been doing this all season, and have already scored nine shorthanded goals in only 14 games. 

They have only scored 22 goals at even-strength in those 14 games. Even more ridiculous is the fact their own power play has only scored seven.

Since the start of the 1990 season only five teams have had more than five shorthanded goals this far into November. The 1993-94 St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers both have seven. The 1991-92 Philadelphia Flyers, 2005-06 Montreal Canadiens, and 2008-09 New York Rangers all had six.

The Coyotes, once again, currently have nine.

There were only five teams in the entire league a year ago that scored more than nine shorthanded goals for the entire season.

They have scored those nine goals on only 45 penalty kills, the sixth lowest number in the league. That means they are scoring on exactly 20 percent of their penalty kills. To put that number in perspective, there are currently 14 power play units in the NHL (including the Coyotes’) that are converting on less than 20 percent of their power play opportunities.

These are absurd numbers, and it is not just about the goals scored.

They are generating a ton of shots, too, at least relative to the rest of the league. So far this season they are averaging more than 20 shots on goal per 60 minutes of penalty kill time. No other team in the league is averaging more than 18, while only four averaging more than 15. The league average is around 12.

What makes the performance offensively even more incredible is they are not giving it up at the other end. It is not the result of an overly aggressive strategy that is leaving them exposed defensively where they give up as much as they score or generate. As of Friday, their penalty killing unit is also allowing the third fewest total shot attempts per 60 minutes of PK time.

They have only allowed four goals and currently have a league-best 91.1 percent success rate when down a player.

Overall, they still have a positive goal differential at plus-five.

Only one team in the league is better than minus-four (the San Jose Sharks are at minus-three).

So what is behind this performance? When it comes to the goals they are scoring there is almost certainly an element of luck and circumstance at play here. No matter how good your penalty killing unit it you don’t need me to tell you that it unreasonable to expect a team to keep scoring shorthanded goals at that pace (and outscoring opposing power plays) over an entire season.

Still, given the number of chances they are creating and the number of shots the unit is generating (as well as the shots they are not allowing their opponents to register) suggests there is also plenty of skill on the unit as well. Goaltending will always play a big role for a team’s penalty kill, and when healthy the Coyotes have an outstanding goaltender in Antti Raanta.

But when it comes to the skaters a lot of the success has to start up front where the Coyotes boast two of the best penalty killing forwards in the league when it comes to generating shorthanded opportunities in Michael Grabner and Derek Stepan.

Of the 160 forwards that have played at least 150 shorthanded minutes since the start of the 2016-17 season, Grabner and Stepan are both among the top-eight (Grabner is second; Stepan is eighth) in shot attempt percentage, while Grabner (currently the team’s top shorthanded option among forwards) is in the top-15 in terms of shot suppression and goals against. His speed is a game-changer and can cause havoc for opposing power plays. He and the rest of his teammates (including Stepan, Brad Richardson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers) are doing a number on every power play unit they have faced this season.

They are going to get two big tests in their upcoming games when they go on the road to face the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. It will be interesting to see how they fare against two of the most intimidating and talented power plays in the league.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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