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NHL Power Rankings: Qualifying Round storylines

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There’s been an excitement in the air since the NHL announced its Return to Play plans last week. Of course, there’s a big if to be added at the beginning of it all. As long as planning and testing goes well, the puck should drop later this summer to determine the 2020 Stanley Cup champion.

There’s still lots of work to do.

But it’s a good first step and allows us to talk hockey for the first time in a few months. The Qualifying Round will kick things off with eight series with lengths that are currently undetermined.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at the top storylines a round with some interesting matchups.

1. Non-playoff teams given second life

Thanks to the RTP format, the Canadiens and Blackhawks, two teams more than six points out of a wild card spot were given a second life. Could they have made a run in the final month of the regular season? Sure, so could the other teams that were out of a playoff spot at the time of the March 12 pause. 

“That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there’s just no way,” said Oilers forward and Return to Play Committee member Connor McDavid. “I mean, we’ve beaten this thing to death, there’s just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn’t the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact.”

But now? Everything is reset and a hot goaltender plus a possible short series could mean an upset.

Say what you will about teams like Montreal and Chicago getting in — if they somehow become champions, they will definitely have earned it.

“Let’s say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup,” McDavid added, “I think they’re a very deserving team. If they’re going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario.”

2. Who is most vulnerable in a potential short series?

As we noted, while the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven, it’s yet to be determined whether the Qualifying Round, First Round, and Second Round will be best-of-five or the usual best-of-seven.

With the amount of time off and the possibility that only three wins could be needed to advance, which higher seeds might be most at-risk?

The Blue Jackets, after a season of filling their trainers’ room every week, should be close to full-health. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulders all season and have succeeded after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Maple Leafs will enter the series with the pressure of winning given their star-studded lineup and dangerous offense. As if John Tortorella needs anything more to add to the “underdog” mantra.

Every playoff team dreads facing the “hot goalie.” All it takes is one 2010 Jaroslav Halak and Cup dreams can come to an end. Is it a stretch to see Carey Price providing issues for the Penguins or Corey Crawford shutting down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl or Igor Shesterkin further cementing his place as New York’s No. 1 by ending the Hurricanes’ season?

At least each team’s pro scouting department will have more than enough time to pick apart the opposition.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

3. The goalie battles

We touched on this Friday with the Rangers. Will Henrik Lundqvist get one last ride in New York or will David Quinn go with the impressive rookie, Shesterkin? Will Mike Sullivan allow training camp to determine if he goes with Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray? Is Mikko Koskinen the definitive choice in Edmonton over Mike Smith? Can Antti Raanta challenge Darcy Kuemper for the Coyotes’ No. 1 job?

Any goalie decision is an important, and the wrong one could swing a series, especially in a possible best-of-five.

A goaltender’s success or struggles before the pause may be erased given the amount of time off. History against a specific team (Henrik Lundqvist dominance over Carolina, for example) or experience can play in a coach’s decision on who to start. That will make training camp performance vital for those who don’t necessarily have the No. 1 job locked down.

4. Stars getting healthy

Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Conor Garland, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Guentzel are a few names in the Qualifying Round who should be back on the ice when play resumes. With nearly four months between games, this round will allow teams to be healthier than usual. It will also put a further importance on training camp leading up to puck drop.

Hamilton, for example, hasn’t played since mid-January, and Jones’ ankle took him out of the lineup in February. Camp will be valuable time not only for those them to get back into hockey mode but also ensure no setbacks when it’s time for contact.

Jason Zucker #16 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second goal
Getty Images

5. Deadline pickups having an effect

The trade deadline seems like it arrived years ago. Let’s now all remember that Tyler Toffoli is a Canuck, Brady Skjei and Vincent Trocheck are Hurricanes, Jason Zucker and Patrick Marleau are Penguins, J.G. Pageau is an Islander, Alex Galchenyuk is a Wild, and Andreas Athanasiou is an Oiler.

Those players will be among the names in the Qualifying Round who switched teams this season, but didn’t get a ton of time to settle into their new digs. Toffoli (6-4-10–10 GP), Zucker (6-6-12–15 GP) and Galchenyuk (3-4-7–14 GP) have had strong starts and will be needed in their individual series.

Meanwhile, Taylor Hall had a longer run with the Coyotes and in 35 games put up 27 points.

In a number of cases — Zucker, Skjei, Pageau, Trocheck, etc — the players have term remaining on their contracts. But then you have the pending unrestricted free agents. The Canucks gave up a good package to add Toffoli; Arizona is hoping to entice Hall to stay; Toronto is relying on Kyle Clifford to bolster their bottom six in what’s going to be a grind-it-out series vs. Columbus.

These players will get time during July training camps to get acclimated with their new teammates and further educate themselves on their new systems. Disappointing outputs could have a big effect on their next contracts.

6. The swan songs

Justin Williams took a break after last season and rejoined the Hurricanes in January. Hanging up his skates for good after this season is something he spoke about in April. Who else could join him?

Wild captain Mikko Koivu has an expiring contract and has hinted his days in Minnesota could be coming to an end. Could GM Bill Guerin value his leadership enough for a one-year deal or will the forward choose to end his playing career at home in Finland?

Is there a spot somewhere in the NHL for Jason Spezza next season? “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day,” he said in February. “I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places. I hope to have a good year and keep going.”

A tighter salary cap could squeeze out a number of veterans as teams look for cheaper, younger alternative already in their systems. Will any get to have their Ray Bourque moment?

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Crawford, Howard, and other interesting veteran NHL free agent goalies

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Earlier this week, PHT looked at uncertain futures for veteran NHL free agent forwards. The league’s other positions face just as much, if not more, uncertainty. So let’s keep this going by tackling veteran NHL free agent goalies.

As with that forward focus, this isn’t a comprehensive list of NHL free agent goalies. This revolves around veterans, with an admittedly arbitrary cutoff of 30 years or older.

Said veteran NHL free agent goalies must also hit a sweet spot. We’re ignoring goalies who should be no-brainer signings (Robin Lehner‘s been one of the best netminders, and he’s also only 28). We’re also going to skate past goalies with dubious chances of being signed to NHL contracts.

You might think such specific parameters would mean zero veteran NHL free agent goalies. Nope, there’s a pretty interesting list. Actually, if you feel like someone prominent didn’t make the cut, do tell.

(We’ll know you are trolling if you blurt out “Robin Lehner,” by the way.)

[Players who might be considering retirement]

Corey Crawford

I was tempted to leave Crawford off of this list. The reasoning is simple enough: Crawford has plenty of name recognition, and he was actually quite good (16-20-3, but with a .917 save percentage) this season.

Ultimately, Crawford warrants a mention, though. For one thing, he’s not that far removed from injury issues that credibly threatened his career. Also, with the Blackhawks firing team president John McDonough and other signs of turmoil, there’s increased uncertainty regarding Crawford’s future with his longtime team. Crawford is 35, too, so there’s the risk of a 35+ contract likely limiting his term options.

Honestly, the Blackhawks might be justified in flinching at bringing back Crawford for a more cynical reason. If Chicago wants to blow things up, or at least institute a mini-reboot, Crawford may foil such plans by … being too good.

The 2018-19 season stands as one of just two seasons where Crawford’s Goals Saved Against Average was on the negative side. With a 9.01 mark for 2019-20, Crawford ranked ahead of the likes of Carter Hart (4.47), stellar backup Jaroslav Halak (8.83), and resurgent Cam Talbot (7.53).

It would be absurd if someone didn’t want Crawford. The NHL can be an absurd league sometimes, though.

Jimmy Howard

During the 2019 NHL trade deadline, it was a little surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade Howard. Outsiders can only speculate if it was more about then-GM Ken Holland asking for too much, or the market being truly, totally dry.

But, either way, Howard’s market value looks much different (read: worse) after a brutal 2019-20, both for the Red Wings and for their veteran goalie. The 36-year-old suffered through a lousy .882 save percentage this season after being steady for two seasons (.909 and .910) and fantastic in 2016-17 (.927).

My guess is that someone will be interested in Howard, but it would be a surprise if he wore a Red Wings sweater in 2020-21. I’d also guess he’s slated to be a clear backup.

Mike Smith

There are goalies teams talk themselves out of (like, seemingly, Robin Lehner). Then there are goalies who gain a lot of leeway, such as Smith.

Familiarity sure seemed to help Smith land with the Oilers. It’s safe to assume that Dave Tippett fondly recalled Smith’s outstanding work during the Coyotes’ 2012 Western Conference Final run. That nostalgia didn’t lead to enough timely saves, though, as Mikko Koskinen soundly surpassed Smith (and Talbot was better in Calgary).

At 38, and with two straight below-average seasons under his belt, Smith may be teetering out of the league. Then again, he’s a big goalie, can handle the puck, and some might weigh those increasingly distant memories almost as heavily as Tippett and the Oilers did last summer.

Other NHL free agent goalies

  • I assume that 34-year-old goalies Thomas Greiss and Anton Khudobin should earn ample interest. They’ve both been fantastic, so I didn’t feel they needed a section. If interest isn’t certain though … it should be.
  • For the most part, Ryan Miller‘s future hinges on his own choices, and preference to be in the California area. Still, he’s worth mentioning, being that he’s 39 and didn’t perform as well in 2019-20.
  • Brian Elliott, 35, came through at times for the Flyers when Hart was injured. The overall picture of his season wasn’t pretty, however. It was fair to wonder about his future last offseason, and he’ll need to keep his expectations modest if he wants to stick in the NHL.
  • The curious trend of Craig Anderson flip-flopping average and elite seasons ended a while ago. It’s now been three rough seasons for the 39-year-old. Maybe someone would believe he could regain some of his past form on a more … hopeful team than the Senators?
  • Aaron Dell ranked as one of the NHL’s better backups in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Then the past two seasons happened, casting serious doubt over the 31-year-old’s future. Perhaps a team might pin that on the Sharks’ system and give Dell, say, a competitive third goalie spot?
  • Could be mostly sad emojis for 30-year-old Keith Kinkaid.

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.

Long-term outlook for Edmonton Oilers: Free agents, prospects, and more

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

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Is there an NHL team that boasts a better duo than Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? What if you weigh the future, being that McDavid is 23 and Draisaitl is 24?

Of course, the Oilers pay for the luxury of a duo that carries them to competence.

Now, I’d argue that McDavid + Draisaitl is a combo worth $21M (honestly, McDavid’s probably worth nearly that much alone). Even so, the combo eats up about 25 percent of this season’s $81.5M cap ceiling. Thanks to the COVID-19 pause, it will be a chore to maintain that level, let alone bump it to $82M or higher.

When you begin paying your stars like actual stars, every mistake cuts that much deeper.

About $14.2M of the Oilers’ space will be eaten up by James Neal, retaining some of Milan Lucic‘s salary, Zack Kassian‘s extension, and the questionable Mikko Koskinen extension. Add in dead money like the Andrej Sekera buyout and the margin of error gets even smaller.

Could that force the Oilers to wave goodbye to, say, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins after 2020-21? Rather than landing a big fish in free agency, will Edmonton be stuck searching the bargain bin year after year?

There’s at least an opening to put together a more efficient defense.

Oscar Klefbom‘s had some stumbles, but he’s worthwhile as either a key defenseman or a trade chip at a reasonable $4.167M through 2022-23. Darnell Nurse received a bridge contract to keep him in the fold. Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard, and/or Philp Broberg could help out with cheap deals through at least 2021-22.

If the Oilers fail to trade them away before their contracts run out, the $8M+ of Kris Russell and Adam Larsson goes off the books after 2020-21.

So, as time goes on, the Oilers could have a decent mix of value and youthfulness on defense. Of course, that’s if Holland makes the right moves, rather than believing too much in the likes of Mike Green.

Holland must answer: who’s going to help McDavid and Draisaitl? Will Andreas Athanasiou be part of the core? Oh yeah, and what about Jesse Puljujarvi?

Long-term needs for Oilers

Even in the optimistic situation where Koskinen persists as a 1A/1B platoon option, the Oilers still need answers in net. Mike Smith hasn’t been effective, and the pending UFA is 38. Koskinen is no spring chicken at 31.

The Oilers could enjoy a less clunky defense in the near future, but if Broberg, Nurse, and Bouchard have limited ceilings, Edmonton would still need a blue-chipper. Maybe two.

And it’s abundantly clear that the Oilers struggle to find help beyond McDavid and Draisaitl.

If there’s any area where Ken Holland can help the organization learn from sins of the past, it’s draft and development. Can they find talent beyond those high first-rounders, as the Oilers so rarely did before? Can they avoid botching development for the closest answers to the next Puljujarvi or Nail Yakupov?

Long-term strengths for Oilers

Because, the thing is, Edmonton still lucked into many key building blocks for a championship foundation.

If everything else is equal, McDavid + Draisaitl are topping most (if not all) other duos. RNH, Kailer Yamamoto, and other younger forwards can help out, just generally not enough.

And, again, help might be on its way on defense.

Through all this turmoil, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman still ranked the Oilers’ under-23 core group as the top one in the NHL back in September (sub required).

Chiarelli and even Holland dug quite a few holes for Edmonton with poor asset management, in trades and otherwise. Yet there’s still a lot to work with, and Holland could very well build a contender if he hits the right buttons.

Really, that’s what’s been frustrating about the McDavid era: you almost need to be creative to find ways to make it all not work. It’s frustrating that Taylor Hall hasn’t been there as McDavid and Draisaitl grew, but that mistake is in the past.

The Oilers can take that next step. They simply made the journey bumpier thanks to taking many wrong turns.

MORE ON THE OILERS

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Hockey community rallies for Nashville tornado relief

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• People are stepping up to help those affected by the Nashville tornadoes. That includes the Predators’ Alumni Association donating $20K, but not just that team. Both the Wild and current Wild owner/former Predators owner Craig Leipold are donating $25K apiece in tornado relief efforts. The NHL announced that it is matching that $50K for tornado relief as well. Fantastic stuff stemming from that terrifying natural disaster. (The Tennessean)

• How did the Lightning turn their season around? Can this season’s team compare to the 2018-19 version that stomped through the regular season, and what about the playoffs? (ESPN)

• Some of the Lightning’s turnaround boils down to Andrei Vasilevskiy getting on track. This post looks at a similar trajectory for Mike Smith, who is heating up while Mikko Koskinen stays steady. Between the two, the Oilers have enjoyed reliable goaltending lately. (Oilers Nation)

Bryan Rust‘s breakout season boils down to combining his talent with the Penguins giving him a better opportunity to succeed. (Pensburgh)

• The Maple Leafs look better by a lot of metrics since Sheldon Keefe took over, but goaltending hasn’t been panning out. How much might it help to lighten Frederik Andersen‘s burden? (Rotoworld)

• Speaking of underlying numbers, these smile upon the chances for both the Wild and Hurricanes making late-season playoff pushes. (NHL.com)

[HURRICANES FACE FLYERS ON NBCSN ON THURSDAY; WATCH IT LIVE]

• Now, while goaltending has been letting the Leafs down lately, GM Kyle Dubas views defense as a “long-term need.” (TSN)

• Are the Flames on the verge of a goalie controversy? (Sportsnet)

• In standing firmly behind Claude Julien going forward, Habs GM Marc Bergevin is also gambling on himself. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• No, Valeri Nichushkin hasn’t generated the kind of offense that was expected of him as the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Nichushkin has, however, become a useful play-driving forward as he settles into a still-fairly-new niche as an Avalanche supporting cast member. (The Hockey News)

I mean, look at these almost-off-the-charts Evolving Hockey RAPM charts for Nichushkin:

Kevin Fiala continues to be a catalyst for the Wild’s surge. (Pioneer-Press)

• Breaking down the Flyers’ elite penalty kill. (Broad Street Hockey)

• What’s been different about Cory Schneider during his latest return back with the Devils? (NJ.com)

• Hm, it’s been a while since the Senators experienced some drama … (The Score)

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.

The Buzzer: Oilers dominate latest Battle of Alberta; goalies fight for records, too

Oilers latest Battle of Alberta Leon Draisaitl buzzer
Getty Images

Three Stars

1. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

The second “Battle of Alberta” of the week ended up lopsided. Leon Draisaitl ended up being a big part of that.

Impressively, Draisaitl collected four assists in Edmonton’s 8-3 win over Calgary. Draisaitl exits Saturday with a commanding lead in the Art Ross race with a resounding 83 points. Last season’s jump to 105 points was incredible, no doubt. Yet, Draisaitl is almost at last year’s assist total of 55, as he reached 54 on Saturday. That’s about a 130-point pace.

The German-born forward has been especially hot lately. Draisaitl pushed his point streak to 11 games, scoring 22 points during that span. That four-point outburst also gives Draisaitl a streak within a streak: five consecutive multi-point games.

In the process, Draisaitl may have solved the riddle of scoring without Connor McDavid.

The Mike Smith – Cam Talbot goalie fight will grab a lot of the attention. And, really, why not? Goalie fights are too odd not to be fun. But Oilers fans should be just as excited about Draisaitl’s dominance.

2. Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens

There’s an argument for Petry over Draisaitl, as they both ended Saturday with an impressive four assists. To me, Draisaitl’s blistering overall play, NHL points lead, and involvement in the “Battle of Alberta” overwhelmed the Petry dish of accomplishments.

Regardless, Petry remains a strong contributor for the up-and-down Habs. Those four assists pushed Petry to 33 points in 53 games in 2019-20. It sure looks like Petry will continue his trend of setting new career-highs (he tied his old mark of 42 in 2017-18, set a new one in 2018-19 with 46, and now has months to flirt with 50+).

3. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

Here is another spot where there are tough calls. Even ignoring other scorers and just focusing on goalies, Lundqvist has competition. Carey Price pitched a 29-save shutout. Curtis McElhinney blanked the Sharks with 30 saves. Ryan Miller didn’t get a shutout, but he stopped 46 out of 47 shots on goal for Anaheim.

But who knows how many more times we’ll see “King Henrik” warrant a three stars nod? Hopefully the answer is “A surprisingly large number of times,” yet it’s unclear.

Lundqvist generated a 33-save shutout against the Red Wings on Saturday. In doing so, Lundqvist earned a shutout for the first time since Nov. 19, 2017. That marks the 64th of his outstanding career. Considering the Rangers’ defensive struggles, Lundqvist and other goalies will have to earn each goose egg.

Also, for what it’s worth: yes, the Red Wings are dreadful, but it was a 1-0 game so New York needed all of Lundqvist’s saves.

Highlight of the Night that’s not a Goalie Fight

No doubt, many will pick Talbot vs. Smith as the highlight of the night. Bask in that glory here, and you know what? This can save you a click:

But it feels worthwhile to give another goalie some of the spotlight. Antti Raanta should practice his “Mortal Kombat” voices after pulling off a scorpion save:

Poor Ryan McDonagh

Consider this one of the lowlights of the night. Sorry, Ryan McDonagh.

Factoids

Scores

BUF 2 – CBJ 1 (OT)
VAN 4 – NYI 3 (OT)
MTL 4 – FLA 0
TOR 2 – OTT 1 (OT)
NYR 1 – DET 0
DAL 3 – NJD (OT)
PHI 6 – COL 3
WPG 5 – STL 2
VGK 3 – NSH 0
BOS 6 – MIN 1
CHI 3 – ARI 2 (SO)
EDM 8 – CGY 3
ANA 3 – LAK 1
TBL 3 – SJS 0

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.