Nathan MacKinnon

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) pushes the puck forward on a break-away as Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau
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A best on best mythical tournament: Players in their prime

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next few Thursdays. The first team created was a 23-and-under roster that would be fascinating to watch.

An NHL player usually reaches peak performance in his late 20’s and this roster is comprised of players in the prime of their career between the ages of 24 and 29. The combination of skill, size, wisdom and depth in this group will be difficult to match for any opponent. The most surprising part of building this team was seeing several superstars left on the sidelines.

Line Combinations

First line: Artemi PanarinNathan MacKinnonLeon Draisaitl

Thoughts: All three players are firmly in the conversation for the 2019-2020 Hart Trophy and the thought of them on the same team, let alone the same line would be highly entertaining. Panarin has established himself as one of the best passers in the NHL and having two lethal goal scorers alongside him should make for an explosive trio.

Second line: Johnny GaudreauMark ScheifeleNikita Kucherov

Thoughts: Both wingers don’t offer much size but Gaudreau and Kucherov are both electric players that have learned how to win in the corners despite their diminutive stature. Scheifele has long been one of the more underrated players in the league and should find instant chemistry with two players that possess elite on-ice vision.

Third line: Taylor HallMika ZibanejadMark Stone

Thoughts: Hall’s game has dipped since winning the 2018 Hart Trophy but still remains a top two-way forward. Zibanejad was one of the most controversial picks beating out the likes of John Tavares, Tyler Seguin and others. But No. 93 has improved his game since the New York Rangers acquired him in a one-sided traded.

Fourth line: Chris Kreider – Ryan O’Reilly – Jonathan Huberdeau

Thoughts: Kreider and O’Reilly have anchored shut down lines in the past but the addition of Huberdeau should add more offensive punch to a very responsible grouping. All three skaters play a disciplined, 200-foot game and could match up with any combination of forwards an opponent has to offer.

First D pairing: Roman JosiSeth Jones
Second D pairing: Victor HedmanDougie Hamilton
Third D pairing: Oliver Ekman-LarssonAaron Ekblad

Thoughts: It’s hard to find a flaw in this grouping of defensemen. These six players collectively possess all the attributes needed to shut down opponents and can quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone.

Starting Goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Backup Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

Just Missed: Aleksander Barkov, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares

Captain: Roman Josi

Alternate captains: Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl

Analysis

It was surprising to see only one player on this team with a championship ring and just seven players have participated in a Stanley Cup Final. With that said, this team has experience in best on best tournaments at every level and have routinely been through the grind of an NHL regular season.

On paper, there are limited areas of concern. The team is comprised of players with diverse attributes to form an extremely well-balanced roster. It has several explosive goal-scorers in the top-six and responsible players in the bottom-six that have the ability to consistently produce on the offensive side of the ice.

In addition, the blueline is staggered with lockdown defensemen and two Vezina candidates guarding the crease.

One challenge for this team, and for any roster in a tournament of this nature, is the ability to find instant chemistry with line mates. In theory, Panarin can set up a few of the top scorers but does it work in reality?

Due to the balance of the roster and varied characteristics, I believe this team would have the inside track to winning this mythical tournament.

Surprising omissions

John Tavares: It wasn’t too long ago that Tavares was the most sought-after free agent in the summer of 2018, but it was challenging to find a spot for the Maple Leafs captain on this roster. It was a tight race between No. 91 and Mika Zibanejad for the third line center position, but the Swedish right-handed centerman has become one of the more dynamic players in the NHL. Tavares is a world-class player. He could easily slide back onto the roster and change the narrative with a dominant stretch when professional hockey returns.

Erik Karlsson: This Swedish defenseman used to terrorize the league with his smooth skating and incredible vision. However, Karlsson hasn’t looked like himself since being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September of 2018. He routinely crossed the 60-point plateau and set a career-high with 82 points in 2015-16, but injuries have slowed him down the past two seasons. This mythical tournament will require teams to perform at an incredibly high level and there is no room for someone who has not been at the top of his game.


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

What is the Colorado Avalanche’s long-term outlook?

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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 Colorado Avalanche.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

It might be the best long-term outlook in the entire NHL. They are young, they are good, and they have a ton of salary cap space to work with. At the top of the lineup is the three-headed forward monster of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. Each player is a star on their own, and when they are put together on a line they form the most dominant offensive trio in the league. All three are signed through the end of next season at a combined salary cap hit of around $20 million. For the production they get out of those three it is an absolute steal against the cap.

MacKinnon is the foundation and still has three more full seasons remaining at $6.3 million per season. It makes him one of the most valuable players in the entire league because he not only gives them MVP, superstar level production to carry the offense, but his contract is so far below market value that it creates additional flexibility under the salary cap.

The same is true with Landeskog who has one year remaining at just a little more than $5.5 million.

Rantanen is the big-money player for now at over $9 million per season for the next five years.

The big question after them was their secondary scoring, but that was addressed over the summer with the additions of Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Valeri Nichushkin. Kadri and Donskoi are both signed long-term, while Nichushkin — very pleasant surprise this season — and Burakovsky will still be  restricted free agents after this season with plenty of salary cap space to work with to re-sign them.

Beyond that, the Avalanche are set on defense with the quartet of Cale Makar, Samuel Girad, Bowen Byram, and Ryan Graves.

Long-Term Needs

While the goaltending duo of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz has been outstanding this season, with both signed through at least next season at a very manageable salary cap number, it might still be the one position that gets a second-look from outsiders as a weakness.

Even that is probably a stretch because it is not really a true weakness right now, and if anything has been one of their biggest strengths this season. But given the contract situation beyond next season for Grubauer, and the fact Francouz is already 29 years old with less than 40 games of NHL action on his resume, it could be something that needs to be addressed over the next year.

A lot of it probably depends on how Grubauer plays when he returns this season and in the playoffs (we are still hoping for the remainder of this season and the playoffs) and through next season.

Long-Term Strengths

The obvious answer here is the top trio of forwards, and especially MacKinnon. Superstar talents are the toughest pieces of a championship team to acquire, and the Avalanche not only have those players, they are still in the prime of their careers — or just entering their prime — and signed long-term for team-friendly salary cap numbers.

What really starts to separate the Avalanche is the makeup of their defense.

Cale Makar looks like he is going to be a star and might have a Norris Trophy in his future. Samuel Girard is a fine No. 2 or 3 on a contending team. Bowen Byram, the No. 4 overall pick from this past year as a result of the Matt Duchene trade, is loaded with potential. Ryan Graves has been a huge development this season and only adds to the strength of that young blue line. Out of that quartet Graves is the only one over the age of 21, and even he is still only 24 years old.

The other big strength is simply the fact they are still swimming in salary cap space, even with the new long-term contracts for Rantanen and Girard (which begins next season). Having a team that is already among the best in the league and still having more salary cap space than almost every other contender is going to give them a significant advantage over their biggest competition, not only when it comes to keeping their secondary players, but also adding to their core.

No team is ever guaranteed a championship, but the Avalanche have everything in place to be a top Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche
Surprises and disappointments

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Colorado Avalanche

Record: 42-20-8 (70 games), second in the Central Division
Leading Scorer: Nathan MacKinnon 93 points (35 goals and 58 assists)

In-season Roster Moves:

• Acquired Michael Hutchinson from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Calle Rosen.
• Traded a 2021 fourth-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for Vladislav Namestnikov.

Season Overview: 

Last season, the Avs were a young team that did some damage in the playoffs when they upset the number one seed, the Calgary Flames, in the opening round of the postseason.This year, there were higher expectations for them.

Despite having to deal with a number of different key injuries, the Avalanche have found a way to stay in the mix for the Central Division crown. That’s impressive when you consider the fact that Gabriel Landeskog missed more than month with a lower-body injury. Also, Mikko Rantanen missed two long stretches (he was on injured reserve at the time of the pause). Nazem Kadri missed 19 games of his own and the list goes on and on.

Of course, most of the heavy lifting offensively was done by MacKinnon, who had accumulated 93 points in just 69 games. His impressive combination of skill and speed are tough to beat. There’s no doubt that he’s in the mix for the Hart Trophy this year.

The emergence of rookie defender Cale Makar has also helped take the Avs to another level this year. The 21-year-old is averaging a shade over 21 minutes of ice time per game and he’s picked up 12 goals and 50 points in 57 contests. Rookie of the year? He was definitely one of the two main contenders for the award.

General manager Joe Sakic also found a way to surround his stars with some solid depth players. Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, Valeri Nichushkin, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have all been nice fits on their new team. The Kadri acquisition also helped solidify things down the middle.

The biggest question mark heading into the season was goaltending. But the duo of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz have held up.

Grubauer, who was expected to be the starter heading into the year, has missed significant time due to injury. In his absence, Francouz has done a really good job, as he owns a 21-7-4 record with a 2.41 goals-against-average and a .923 save percentage.

Whether we see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season or not is almost irrelevant for the Avs. They’re not one of those teams that will fade next season. This is a group with a young nucleus that should compete for quite a while.

Highlight of the Season: 

There were a lot of positive moments for the Avs, but Jan. 2, 2020 has to be right up there with the best of them.

Not only did the Avs beat the defending champion St. Louis Blues, they made a statement. Colorado built up a 3-0 lead, but the score was 3-2 heading into the third frame. That’s when they turned on the afterburners and left the Blues in the dust.

They scored three more times in the third frame and beat St. Louis, 7-3. MacKinnon had four points.

They went on to beat the Blues again less than a month later.

MORE:
• Avs’ biggest surprises, disappointments this season
Long-term outlook

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.

Long-term outlook for the Calgary Flames

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 Calgary Flames. 

Pending free agents

The Core

The Flames played a little over their heads for much of 2018-19, building some belief that the Flames might possess one of the NHL’s best cores. Unfortunately, Nathan MacKinnon and the Avs rained on that parade during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and things got downright soggy at times in 2019-20.

Overall, though? The Flames’ core still looks quite good. Not best-in-class, but quite good.

If nothing else, they boast some serious value.

Thankfully, they didn’t overreact and trade Johnny Gaudreau, who’s almost insultingly underpaid ($6.75M AAV through 2021-22). Maybe 2018-19 inflated expectations for “Johnny Hockey,” but he’s still an excellent player.

It’s actually difficult to tell how much Sean Monahan and/or Elias Lindholm lean on Gaudreau for production, but both are cheap and covered for years, so it doesn’t really matter.

Matthew Tkachuk? He’s worth every bit of that $7M per year through 2021-22. So the forward group is covered pretty nicely.

And, yes, Mark Giordano‘s age (36) is troubling for the future, but we’ll get to that. For now, consider Giordano pretty fantastic (not quite Norris-fantastic, but fantastic nonetheless), and nicely cost-efficient at $6.75M. Giordano’s contract ending after 2021-22 mitigates much of that aging curve concern, too.

Now, not every long-term dollar is well-spent. While Milan Lucic isn’t as bad of a player as the snark suggests, his contract really is a headache. There are other issues, such as Mikael Backlund‘s troubling term.

Ultimately, though … not bad. Not cream of the crop stuff, but you can bump that group up quite a bit thanks to a mix of bargains and relatively limited risks.

Long-term needs for Flames

Consider Cam Talbot’s resurgence triage for the Flames’ goaltending situation. Talbot provided a short-term fix, but considering his pending UFA status and how unpredictable the position can be, will the Band-Aid slip off soon?

There’s quite a bit of uncertainty there, whether Talbot returns or the Flames find the “next” Talbot. Meanwhile, David Rittich presents an unpleasant form of predictability: he’s been consistently mediocre.

Unfortunately, the Flames face questions about how to insulate their goalies. Their defense lacks clarity beyond aging star Giordano, especially if both Hamonic and Brodie played their last games for the Flames. There are worse groups out there, but the Flames may be stuck with “good” while seeking “great.”

In ranking the NHL’s farm systems for The Athletic in January (sub required), Scott Wheeler placed the Flames 26th. Even at such a low ranking, Calgary’s highest rank prospects were forwards (and goalie Dustin Wolf), not defensemen. If the Flames get help on defense, it might have to come via free agency.

Oh yeah … they might need a coach, too, if they aren’t impressed with Geoff Ward.

Long-term strengths of Flames

While the Flames’ forward group ranks a notch or two behind the best of the best, it’s still quite good. The one-two punch of Gaudreau’s playmaking on one line and Tkachuk’s two-way peskiness on another can be very effective.

The Flames also lack a cap hit above Tkachuk’s $7M. That flexibility could come in very handy if other teams need to shed salary thanks to a coronavirus-related cap squeeze.

Even certain weaknesses could be spun as strengths.

Yes, their goalie situation is uncertain, but the Flames also enjoy flexibility. Before you scoff at that point, consider that Sergei Bobrovsky‘s performing at a sub-backup level for $10M per year at age 31.

Who’s to say that the Flames won’t successfully target better goaltending, at better prices, without the risky term other teams hand out?

Such flexibility opens up lanes for free agency, too. Perhaps the Flames could take that next step by landing, say, Alex Pietrangelo or Taylor Hall?

As is, the Flames mostly show the makings of a good team. Last season showed they could flirt with great, while this one reminded that there’s still work to do. They have a decent shot at getting there, even if they aren’t there yet.

(Then again, there’s also the possibility that they already missed their best chance or chances. Hockey’s fickle that way.)

MORE FLAMES BITS:
Looking at the 2019-20 Flames (so far?)
Biggest surprises and disappointments.

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.

Calgary Flames: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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 Calgary Flames.

Gaudreau, Monahan have been disappointments for Flames

Johnny Gaudreau enjoyed the best season of his NHL career in 2018-19, setting career highs for goals (36) and points (99). Gaudreau blew away his previous career high of 84 points.

In doing so, Gaudreau might have set expectations too high for both himself and the Flames.

Some might pin Gaudreau’s slippage to a morale-busting first-round loss to the Avalanche during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. After all, Gaudreau failed to score a single goal during that series, managing a measly assist over five games. If there was a shred of doubt about Gaudreau vs. Nathan MacKinnon, that debate was crushed with the speed of an authoritative overtime playoff game-winner.

Maybe Gaudreau is suffering from a minor crisis of confidence, but that armchair psychology likely falls short. Simply put, he was probably playing over his head last season, and then he regressed.

It’s still a disappointment for the Flames, though. With 58 points in 70 games, Gaudreau’s .83 points-per-game average is the third-worst of his career.

And, generally speaking, as Gaudreau goes, so does Sean Monahan.

It’s not surprising that Matthew Tkachuk ranks higher than Monahan and Gaudreau on this GAR chart (via Charting Hockey using Evolving Hockey’s stats), being that Tkachuk is such a five-on-five demon. But the two being run-of-the-mill by their standards made it tough for Calgary to pull away from the Pacific pack.

Flames firing Bill Peters was part of a run of coaching surprises

The series of events that ultimately led to the Flames firing Bill Peters was quite ugly, and there were also surprises along the way.

Frankly, the fact that Peters faced actual consequences — rather than another powerful person’s indiscretions merely being brushed under the rug — was a pleasant surprise. Peters facing repercussions doesn’t delete the unpleasant experiences Akim Aliu and others went through, yet it was a sign of progress in hockey — whether you consider the changes big or merely incremental.

Peters’ firing was part of a series of surprises in the coaching ranks that would probably go down as a bigger story for 2019-20 if COVID-19 hadn’t halted play altogether.

Cam Talbot rebounds for Flames

In a season of slippage for the Flames, Talbot’s lifting Calgary up.

After seeing his save percentage sink below .90 during his final year with the Oilers, Talbot’s been huge for Calgary. Talbot entered the “pause” with a three-game winning streak, and generated a strong .919 save percentage overall.

That’s all been crucial, as David Rittich remained mediocre. If he’s “Big Save Dave,” perhaps Rittich needs to focus a bit more on the small and medium-sized stops?

Flames aren’t getting pleasant surprises from Sam Bennett

Expecting more from Rittich (.907 save percentage in 2019-20) was foolish considering his .908 career average. Projecting a dramatic transformation from Bennett might have been even more foolish.

Yet, even by diminished standards, Bennett’s 2019-20 was extremely meh. Bennett only managed 12 points over 52 games, which translates to a career-worst .23 ppg.

The Flames have tried to hold out for value in potentially trading Bennett. That makes sense, as it would sting to receive very little for the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. But considering how his numbers (and ice time) are sinking, maybe it would be best for everyone involved if a trade happened?

A change of scenery might be the only thing that leads to pleasant surprises for Bennett and the Flames.

Oh, and as a bonus surprise: Milan Lucic … not as bad as maybe people think. His contract remains bad, but Lucic seems like he can be an OK contributor overall. Yup, life and the Flames are both full of surprises … and OK, perhaps disappointments.

MORE FLAMES BITS

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.