Nathan MacKinnon

Previewing the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but things could have been much worse considering their cap crunch — and also the rather obvious need for Nazem Kadri to get a change of scenery.

Ultimately, it’s still a step back to replace Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, etc. with Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, and so on. That doesn’t mean that the end result has to be a step backward, but it’s a minor stumble on paper.

Strengths: Yes, the Maple Leafs are paying top dollar for Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and now Mitch Marner. It just so happens that they’re more or less worth that money; fans of NHL teams have just become conditioned to see these types of guys making less than they should, thanks to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sidney Crosby.

With Morgan Rielly and now Barrie, the Maple Leafs have some pretty potent options as far defensive scoring goes, although things get sketchy once you reach beyond the best options.

Frederik Andersen is also one of the best goalies in the NHL, and can sometimes will the Maple Leafs into games when their defense is cratering and their offense is cold.

Weaknesses: If Andersen gets hurt or struggles, the Maple Leafs’ backup options sure seem pretty dicey. Such a thought might prompt the team to wear Andersen out even if he plays well and stays healthy.

Depth on defense is a bit of a challenge, too.

Frankly, it’s tough to ignore Mike Babcock as someone who might be holding the Maple Leafs back. It’s not always huge decisions, but the conservative leaning can be a death by a thousand cuts. Not giving Auston Matthews enough minutes. Falling in love with old-school defensemen who, frankly, aren’t very good. It all adds up to a Maple Leafs setup that sometimes doesn’t feel fully optimized. I’m not convinced Babcock is a “bad” coach, yet like a lot of others, he has some bad habits.

[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It’s usually not the best sign when you end a season needing a vote of confidence from your GM. Babcock came to Toronto with a big reputation and an even bigger contract, making it slightly awkward to fire him, but despite all of the personnel improvements the Maple Leafs have made, they still haven’t won a playoff series since 2003-04. Some of that comes down to facing tough opponents, including being tormented by the Boston Bruins, but patience is wearing thin. Put Babcock at a 9.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie.

Marner got his wish with a contract that carries close to an $11 million cap hit; now it’s time for him to silence his doubters by showing that he’s worth that asking price. Fair or not, any cold streak will be magnified.

Nylander’s near-$7M AAV looks a whole lot better months later, but that doesn’t mean that Maple Leafs fans have totally “forgiven” him for a bumpy 2018-19 season once he actually signed. His hair choices will also be fascinating to watch.

Barrie brings a lot of skill to the table, and should have plenty of motivation in a contract year. That said, he also has his warts on defense; Maple Leafs fans and media tend to fixate on such mistakes, and it remains to be seen if Barrie will finish 2019-20 with a high standing among hockey folk.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and another Round 1 exit won’t be acceptable. That might mean finally scaling the mountain that is the Boston Bruins. Even if Toronto draws someone like the Lightning or revamped Panthers, chances are it won’t be an easy challenge, yet people won’t be very interested in excuses — even good ones — if this season ends just like the last few.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Agent says Laine, Rantanen ‘not close’ to new contracts

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The list of RFAs without contracts is getting smaller, but that doesn’t mean that every big situation is on the verge of being settled.

Agent Mike Liut represents two of biggest RFAs remaining: Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) and Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche), so it’s significant that he gave a not-so-optimistic update about their negotiations during a Wednesday interview on Sportsnet 650.

Around the 4:00 mark of that interview, Liut admitted that “we’re not close,” while adding that “nothing has gone on that we didn’t anticipate.”

Another key note in the Liut interview comes later on, as he largely shoots down the notion that Laine and/or Rantanen will do much to pursue contracts with European teams that include out clauses. Liut’s explanation was pretty simple: said teams might not want to deal with the potential disruption of Laine or Rantanen briefly being a part of their teams, only to leave (although injuries could change the arithmetic).

Anyway, let’s break things down a bit for both Rantanen and Laine.

Rantanen = Marner?

Liut acknowledged that he views Mitch Marner as the best comparable for Rantanen, pointing out that they both bring great strengths as playmakers, even if they go about doing so in different ways (Rantanen being at around 225 lbs., Marner … not). It’s not shocking that Marner is mentioned for Rantanen, in particular, and it presents an interesting challenge for the Avalanche.

Via Cap Friendly, the Avs currently have about $15.62 million in cap space, so theoretically they could accommodate an AAV in Marner’s $10.893M range. In last week’s edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman mentioned that Colorado would prefer that Rantanen not make $4M more than Nathan MacKinnon, whose ridiculous bargain $6.3M cap hit runs through 2022-23.

Rantanen will turn 23 on Oct. 29. So far in his career, he’s generated 80 goals and 209 points in 239 games (.87 points per game). Marner (turned 22 in May) has 67 goals and 224 points in 241 games, which translates to .93 points per game.

If people are going to downgrade Marner’s big 2018-19 season because of John Tavares‘ influence, then they can make a similar claim about MacKinnon’s benefit to Rantanen. Since Rantanen began his career with nine regular-season games in 2015-16, he’s played 1,632:31 even-strength minutes with MacKinnon, and just 552:24 without MacKinnon, according to Natural Stat Trick.

MacKinnon and Rantanen clearly have a symbiotic relationship, but it’s nonetheless difficult to fully grasp how much Rantanen is worth on his own.

Of course, it’s not the worst problem to have, as Colorado is getting those cheap years with MacKinnon, and we know that the MacKinnon + Rantanen combo is dynamite.

Some unrest with Laine

Speaking of linemates, that talking point flared up regarding Laine and the Jets, as the sniper hasn’t been able to stick with the combo of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler with much consistency. Instead, his most frequent even-strength linemate has been Bryan Little.

His recent Finnish interview with iltalehti.fi created quite a stir in that regard.

To some extent, Laine has a point. He likely would have ended up with more than 30 goals and 50 points in 2018-19 (a significant drop from 2017-18’s 44 goals and 70 points) if he spent the majority of his shifts with Scheifele and/or Wheeler.

Of course, it’s fair for the Jets to wonder if they’d be better off loading up in that way — and not just to spread the offensive wealth.

Frankly, the criticisms of Laine’s two-way play aren’t totally out of line, at least when you’re debating just how much he should be paid. Consider his troubling multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey for one quick look at his defensive warts:

According to Cap Friendly, the Jets have about $15.45M in cap space, which sounds promising until you realize that Winnipeg is looking to lock down not just Laine and Kyle Connor. One wonders if Colorado may be OK with Rantanen’s contract negotiations slipping into the regular season (maybe bumping down his cap hit long-term, like the Maple Leafs did with William Nylander), but TSN’s Frank Seravalli noted last week that the Jets would be better off getting one or both of Rantanen and Laine done before the regular season kicks in.

Of course, the uncertainty surrounding Dustin Byfuglien’s future adds another wrinkle to the Jets’ already complicated dealings.

***

Each situation is different, and challenging in its own way.

Regardless, this figures to be a lucrative stretch for Liut. Puck Pedia places Vladimir Tarasenko‘s $7.5M AAV as the highest AAV of any active Liut client, so even if the Jets and Avalanche “win” discussions with Laine and Rantanen, it’s likely that Liut will see a new top two once the smoke clears.

What’s a fair price for each player?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Blues’ O’Reilly has ‘another gear’ after being playoff MVP

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Ryan O’Reilly stockpiled quite the hardware to show off at his Stanley Cup day.

On display next to the Cup he helped the St. Louis Blues win in June were the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Any player would gladly celebrate with those shiny centerpieces, though O’Reilly — at 28 and on his third team — is only now showing he is this kind of elite player.

“I still think I have another gear to get to, and that’s my plan,” O’Reilly said. “There’s still many things to improve on. There are areas to be better. One thing, too, is I think power-play production for myself could’ve been a lot better, and that’s an area I need to grow. There’s some stuff I’ve been working on to try to improve that.”

O’Reilly had nine points in the Cup Final against Boston playing through a cracked rib. He was nearly a point-a-game player during the regular season. Yet, somehow he still seemed underappreciated outside his peers.

“People didn’t realize how good of a player Ryan O’Reilly was until this year,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. “All the players knew how good he was and how big of a part of that team he was and how special of a player — just his two-way game, his faceoffs. Obviously his point production this year was outstanding. His play in the playoffs, winning MVP and obviously the Stanley Cup, it was a great year for him and I think he opened up a lot of eyes.”

O’Reilly said he figured something out during the playoffs: how to clear out some “garbage” in his brain to focus on what matters. The challenge now is trying to duplicate that during an 82-game regular season.

“Just go out there and completely be in the moment and go from there,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a big lesson for myself, trying to establish that more. Be clear and find a way to take all the noise and all the stuff that you don’t need in your head and just throw it out. It just seems like when I did that, I tend to get more bounces and things went my way.”

Winning the Selke was evidence enough of O’Reilly’s strong regular season. He ranked eighth in the league in faceoffs, which is part of what makes him so tough to play against.

“He’s just so competitive on draws,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’m one of those guys I want to start every shift with the puck and if we’re going up against a guy like that that could catch fire, and we might be chasing it down for a whole period. He’s obviously not one of the fastest guys out there, but he’s so good positionally and just aware of where guys are and what to do with the puck. I think he’s just an all-around super intelligent player.”

Nathan MacKinnon

Already considered one of the fastest hockey players on earth, MacKinnon carried the Colorado Avalanche to within one victory of the Western Conference final and is the biggest reason they’re a fashionable Cup contender this season. Fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby said MacKinnon is in the category of Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton star Connor McDavid as players who can take over games.

“We saw a pretty good glimpse of that in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “He did it consistently. … I’d expect him to take another big step.”

Rookie Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said it’s electrifying to watch MacKinnon on the ice. And the 24-year-old center is an example to his younger teammates and those around the league.

“He’s just a super committed guy,” Makar said. “He loves hockey, and that’s the way he plays. It shows on the ice. Just the way he handles his routine is very specific and you just learn from star players like that.”

Henrik Lundqvist

“The King” is 37, yet could be the difference between the New York Rangers missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season or contending ahead of schedule. The longtime starting goaltender isn’t fazed by young backup Alexandar Georgiev and top prospect Igor Shesterkin looming in the not-too-distant future.

“My approach will not change,” Lundqvist said. “I need to reach my top level no matter what, no matter who’s next to me or where the team is at.”

Lundqvist said the start of last season was the best he had felt in a while. He posted a 2.68 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in his first 22 starts last season, which would be great for an improved Rangers team with a better blue line and more firepower up front.

“That’s the level I just need to reach and sustain throughout the year, and then I know I can make a difference,” Lundqvist said.

Alex Ovechkin

The release of “Ovi O’s” cereal marked his 34th birthday. If anyone has shown age is just a number, it’s Ovechkin, who is now the Washington Capitals’ oldest player and still could score 50 goals. Even though Ovechkin said he’s “not a grandpa” and trained differently this summer, don’t expect him to alter his style too much.

“I’m still young, you know,” Ovechkin said. “I still want to play my game. … We’re here for 25 minutes or whatever it is — I just want to be here to win, whatever it takes.”

Ovechkin preceded O’Reilly as playoff MVP when he led the Capitals to the first title in franchise history in 2018. After a full summer off, he is refreshed to try to do it again.

“He’s obviously a different talent,” Washington winger Carl Hagelin said. “A guy like that doesn’t come around very often. He’s one of those energetic guys even though he’s 33, 34 years old. He comes to the rink with a smile every day. He does what he has to do.”

Mark Stone

There may not be a more complete winger in the NHL than Stone, who put up 12 points in the Vegas Golden Knights’ seven-game first-round series against San Jose. Stone is free of Ottawa’s long-term rebuild and starting a $76 million, eight-year contract with big expectations to help Vegas make another long playoff run.

“You get a No. 1 forward,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s an unbelievable player. He does everything well on the ice. He puts up great numbers every year, and he’s a successful player.”

Vegas is one of several NHL teams without a captain. That might not last long with Stone in the fold.

“He’s not a guy that’s trying to be a leader,” Marchessault said. “He’s just a born leader, so it’s just natural for him.”

Rasmus Dahlin

The 2018 No. 1 pick had 44 points to lead all rookie defenseman. It was just the floor for where Dahlin wants to start.

“Of course I want to score more goals, have more assists and stuff like that,” Dahlin said. “Last season, I had more points than I expected, but this year, I always want more. That’s why I play.”

The Buffalo Sabres are counting on that in their first season under coach Ralph Krueger. Captain Jack Eichel has big expectations for Dahlin, who he believes “lived up to all the hype.”

“You look at how good he was last year in year one and how much more he knows now,” Eichel said. “I think he’s primed to have a monster season.”

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Most underrated player

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NHL players love Aleksander Barkov.

That’s what we learned during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. When we asked a number of the attendees who, in their eyes, is a player who deserves more love and attention, the Florida Panthers star was a popular choice. (Does this no longer make him underrated?)

We tried to push the players to give us an underrated choice away from their own teams, but a few broke the rules, and that’s OK. 

Here’s who we were told is most underrated around the league when we asked, “Who’s an NHL player who deserves more recognition?”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “He’s starting to come into that light but Aleksander Barkov — a lot of guys would probably say him. His skill is unbelievable. I remember last year he battled one out of the air against us on his backhand, puck was probably going three, four feet wide but somehow he came across and tipped it in. He’s just an all-around solid player.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “There’s more and more undercover guys that are starting to get recognition. I think a guy like Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Barkov. These guys are getting more but I believe that they should be getting more than that. On the other side of it, a guy on my own team that I’m a little biased with that doesn’t get as much is Nik Hjalmarsson. He’s a very underrated defensive defenseman that maybe doesn’t as much credit because his stats don’t really show up on a gamesheet afterwards other than blocked shots.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “I like Barkov. He had a great season, doesn’t really get talked about that much. I don’t know if it’s the Florida market or whatever, but he was one of the best players in the league last year and you don’t really hear about him too much.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “My answer to this is usually Mark Giordano, but now he’s won the Norris so he’s not underrated anymore.”

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: “Jordan Staal is a pretty underrated player in the league. Playing against him in the playoffs and playing against him in the Metro, I don’t think I’ve beat him on a faceoff in two years. He’s tough to play against and has got a great skillset for a big guy. He’s a really good player.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “A player that jumps out at me is Josh Anderson on Columbus. He’s a guy that battles hard, plays hard, is tough, but can score goals as well.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “Barkov in Florida. He’s very, very good.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Brayden Point. He’s a really good player and he deserves to be talked about.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Probably this guy [pointing to Jonathan Marchessault]. He’s kind of a sick player, eh? I would say him or Nick Backstrom.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “Obviously Barkov, Huberdeau, I think you don’t hear [about] them enough. They’re super good in Florida.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “Probably Kyle Connor. I was with him in Winnipeg and he’s an elite player. He’s really good.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think Roman Josi. We only play against them twice a year so we don’t see much of them. I was able to skate with him a couple weeks ago for four or five days in Florida. He’s a guy that probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves even being the captain for Nashville. Just being on the ice against him, being on the ice with him, he’s a really special player and he does it all out there.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “One guy I’ll talk about and I think he’s going to get there is Thomas Chabot. I think he’s got a Norris Trophy in his future. Because of the way things finished in Ottawa last he kind of flew under the radar. Start of the season he was top-two in scoring for defenseman for the first third of the year. I think he’s a guy we’re going to hear a lot about coming up.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Mark Stone. People know he’s good but I think people don’t realize how good he is because maybe he’s not as silky as Matthews and those guys. When you look at everything he does out there it’s special. The takeaways he does. The way he plays in his own zone, the way he plays in the offensive zone. Those are the special things that not many players have in this league.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “He’s got it now, but a guy that I thought was a good player but I didn’t know he was this good was Ryan O’Reilly. He’s put up numbers, for sure. This year he took himself and the team to a whole new level and he’s a big part of what they did last season. He’s doing well.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “Probably my boy Mikael Granlund. I definitely know his skill and how talented he is. Obviously you have to earn that and earn that ability to play more and have that new trust with a new team. I think they’ll see, they’ll understand in Nashville what they got this year. This guy’s got vision. It’s fun to talk hockey with him.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’ll stay in-house and look at a guy like Miro [Heiskanen]. I think playing in a small market he didn’t get the respect that he deserved. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “It’s Barkov from Florida. He’s always underrated and I love how he plays.”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “Now he’s getting more, but Nathan MacKinnon is a very, very good hockey player. In my opinion, he’s been in the top five forwards in the league for a little while. I’d like to see him get a little bit more. I just appreciate his work ethic, how he plays the game, and the way he impacts the game. It’s very difficult to do it the way he does it, with the speed, the skill, his power, [the way] he protects the puck, his ability to make guys around him better. There’s only a few players in the league like that that have that big of an impact. We know about [Connor] McDavid, we know about [Sidney] Crosby, but MacKinnon makes everybody on the ice better. I’d like to see him get some more love.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

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

Previewing the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Avs were one of the best young teams in the entire NHL last season and that should continue into this year. They found a way to add veteran center Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs while also landing Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Valeri Nichushkin. Outside of Kadri, the rest are nothing more than depth additions, but on a roster lacking firepower behind their first line, those moves may prove to be significant. Whether or not the Avalanche are a better team this year than they were last year will likely depend on when restricted free agent Mikko Rantanen signs his next contract. For now, let’s call the Avs better.

Strengths: Again, let’s assume for a moment that Rantanen will be signed by the start of the regular season. With Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog in the fold, the Avs arguably have the best line in hockey. When those three are on, they’re incredibly difficult to stop. MacKinnon is coming off 97 and 99-point seasons, Landeskog had 75 points in 73 games and Rantanen had a career-high 87 points in 74 contests. They’re nearly impossible to stop on their worst day.

The Avs also have some of the top young defensemen in the game in Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram. Makar made a significant impact in the playoffs last year and he should be able to pick up where he left off. Girard just inked a significant contract extension with the club this summer and Byram, who was drafted fourth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, is likely a year or two away from the NHL, but he offers immense upside, too.

[MORE: 3 QuestionsUnder Pressure I X-factor: Makar]

Weaknesses: We’ve talked about the outstanding top line, but can the rest of the squad score enough to give them a more balanced attack? After the “big three,” no other forward on the roster put up more than 49 points last season. After MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog, their top score point-getters were Tyson Barrie, Carl Soderberg and Alex Kerfoot. All three of those players are no longer with the organization. Of course, Kadri should be able to pick up some of the slack offensively, but for the Avalanche to get more out of their roster, they’ll need more balance up front.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): The seat isn’t even warm for Jared Bednar, so we’ll go with a 2 out of 10. If the Avalanche take a step back in 2019-20, anything is possible. But Bednar showed that he’s able to get the most out of his guys during the regular season and the playoffs. Again, unless something drastic happens with Rantanen, this team should be better than they were a year ago.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Makar, Tyson Jost and Philipp Grubauer are three players to keep an eye on this season. Makar didn’t suit up in a regular season game for the Avs because he was finishing up his college season with UMass-Amherst, but he made quite the impression during the postseason, as he had a goal and six points in just 10 games. He has the potential to be a number one defenseman for this organization for a long time. How quickly can he get there?

Jost is still just 21 years old, but the Avalanche need him to up his production sooner or later. The 21-year-old was drafted 10th overall in 2016. Since then, he’s picked up 49 points in 141 games which is fine for a young player, but someone with that draft pedigree has to explode offensively sooner or later. Is this the year?

Grubauer has shown that he’s capable of winning big games during the regular season and the playoffs, but this will be the first time in his career that he’s the undisputed number one goalie on a team at the NHL level. He’s never played more than 37 games during an NHL regular season and you have to imagine that he’ll have to surpass that number this year. He’ll need to show that he can handle a heavy workload now that Semyon Varlamov is no longer in Colorado. He should be fine, but it’s something to monitor.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. This is a team that managed to earn the final Wild Card spot in the West last year and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish there again this year. They also have enough talent that they might be able to sneak into the top three spots in the Central Division though.

MORE:
How good can Avs be next season?
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.