Nino Niederreiter

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Stuck on zero: Notable NHL players still searching for first goal

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We are a couple of weeks into the 2019-20 NHL season and there have been some surprising players at the top of the goal-scoring leaderboard, including James Neal, Anthony Mantha, Victor Olofsson, Brayden Schenn, and Erik Haula.

Perhaps just as surprising is the list of players still searching for their first goal, fighting through extended early season slumps.

Every player will go through hot streaks and cold streaks over the course of a season, and when those streaks happen now we tend to pay extra attention to them because there is nothing else around them to hide them. A first line player stuck on zero goals after six or seven games will stick out more than a six-or seven-game drought in the middle of March.

Here are eight notable players still trying to find that first goal. We are limiting this to players that have played in at least six games.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights
Games played entering Tuesday:
6
Shots on goal: 16

After scoring 67 goals over the past two seasons Karlsson has gone six games without a goal to open the 2019-20 season. The good news for him: He started each of the past two seasons with zero goals in his first six games before scoring in his seventh game each year.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 14

Barkov has become one of the NHL’s best all-around players over the past couple of years and is one of the reasons for optimism in Florida. He has not scored yet this season but he is doing literally everything else, having already recorded five assists while the Panthers are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts when he is on the ice. Only a matter of time before the puck starts finding the back of the net for him.

Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 13

Getting a full season of Niederreiter is a big reason to like the Hurricanes this season. He was a significant addition in the middle of the 2018-19 season and is an outstanding two-way winger that can defend, drive possession, and help create offense. He is still helping to drive possession at an elite rate. He is not a big-time goal-scorer, but he is always a lock for at least 20 goals.

Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars
Games played entering Tuesday: 7
Shots on goal: 10

The Stars have been one of the league’s most disappointing teams so far and Pavelski might be their most disappointing player through the first seven games. Not only as he failed to score a goal, but only generating 10 shots on goal in seven games is a concerning sign. Some regression had to be expected from his 38-goal campaign a year ago (he had a career-high shooting percentage at age 34, which was never going to be repeated) but this has to be discouraging. He also has just one assist.

Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 21 (combined)

The two recent No. 1 overall picks are two of the most important players on the Devils’ roster from a big picture outlook, and so far both have struggled. Hughes has failed to record a point in his first six games and can not seem to buy a goal. Just another thing that has gone wrong for the Devils in a season where nothing has gone as expected.

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 6

Schwartz had a bizarre 2018-19 season, struggling through one of the worst regular season performances of his career (mostly due to a terrible shooting percentage) before being unstoppable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The trouble for Schwartz this season (unlike last season) is he is not yet generating shots.

Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 4

The Flames will try to sell you on the idea he is doing exactly what they want, providing physical play and serving as some sort of protection for their stars. But man, zero goals, zero points, only four shots on goal, a lot of penalty minutes, a huge contract, and the guy he was traded for (James Neal) can not stop scoring goals for their biggest rival. There is no way that trade is a win at this point.

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.

Nightmare of Niederreiter trade lingers as Rask struggles to earn Wild spot

The 2018-19 season ended up being a disaster both for Victor Rask and the Minnesota Wild, with the Rask – Nino Niederreiter trade being one of the main catalysts for the lightning-quick firing of Paul Fenton. It also seems like that nightmare will linger for Rask heading into 2019-20, at least to start.

Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau indicates that Rask finds himself behind four other centers on the depth chart, and thus might not begin the season as one of 12 forwards expected to dress for regular-season games, as Sarah McLellan reports for the Star-Tribune.

“At this moment, I would say that there are four centers ahead of him now that we’ve seen that [captain Mikko Koivu’s knee] is fine and he can play,” Boudreau said. “It makes it difficult. But this is where you become mentally strong. You wait for your chance, whether it’s Sunday in [the] preseason game and you score two or three, or the first chance you get into a game prove that you can’t be taken out of the game. That’s what it’s about.”

Boudreau added that “I gotta believe his confidence is sagging,” so at least the Wild aren’t trying to deny the obvious.

While this first serves, to some, as another victory lap for the Hurricanes’ side of the trade, and more pie on the face for Fenton, the situation is interesting for a few other reasons.

One that stands out to me is that it’s another reminder that the Wild are focused more on the absolute present than anything else.

I mention that because, from a team-building standpoint, there would be some logic in trying to goose up Rask’s value for an eventual “pump and dump” trade. Even if Rask’s less in a rut and more just a mediocre player going forward, the bottom line is that the 26-year-old carries a $4 million AAV through 2021-22. As horrendous as Rask looked at times this season in only managing nine points in 49 games between the Wild and Hurricanes, it’s not impossible for there to be some bounce-back, particularly if you put him in a position to succeed.

After all, Rask generated seasons of 48 (2015-16) and 45 (2016-17) points, and there were certain circumstantial elements that dragged his numbers down. The Swedish forward dealt with nagging injuries for significant stretches of the season, and only averaged 12:06 TOI, a massive drop from 2017-18, when he averaged 15:23 per night (which itself was a plummet from 2016-17’s career-high average of 17:18).

Now, those numbers don’t make the Rask – Niederreiter trade any easier to stomach, as there really wasn’t much pointing to Rask standing a great chance of hanging with Niederreiter, especially when you expand your view from sheer goals and assists to a player’s all-around impact, as Niederreiter has long been known as a strong play-driver, while Rask … not so much.

But if the Wild were looking more toward trying to optimize for the future, they might want to boost Rask’s numbers to make it possible to trade him for something, rather than having him be a potential $4M black hole and healthy scratch.

That risk is much higher in this current alignment, but that doesn’t mean the Wild are totally in the wrong. Frankly, with the way Rask played in 2018-19, there’s evidence that the team might have 12 better forward options. That’s relevant for a team that still seems eager to try to compete, whether you agree with that stance, lean toward the belief that a more fully-formed rebuild would be the smarter course, or not.

The Wild are continuing to choose “or not,” which means that Rask will need to make a convincing argument to get reps. Apparently Rask still has some convincing to do.

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.

Boudreau, Wild aim to disprove belief they are on decline

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — After their six-year streak of making the playoffs came to an end, the Minnesota Wild went through an eventful summer in which the major change was made in the front office, not to the roster.

The Wild were the fifth-lowest scoring team in the league last season. Among their top seven point producers from 2018-19, four will be at least 35 years old by midseason.

There’s no surprise, then, that the external expectations for success are scant.

”That’s good. Let them pick us to be at the bottom,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. ”But we believe in ourselves, and we’re counting on surprising people.”

With stalwarts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter coming off strong post-injury performances in 2018-19, there is precedent for Mikko Koivu (knee) and Matt Dumba (shoulder) to do the same a year later after their absences last season contributed significantly to the decline. Just as helpful toward improvement might be an extra edge the Wild have brought to the ice this fall.

”Every team that didn’t win is going to say it has a chip on its shoulder,” Boudreau said, ”but all I know is when they predict you to be 32nd in a 31-team league, it might piss you off a little bit.”

The first jolt came at the end of July when owner Craig Leipold fired general manager Paul Fenton after less than 15 months on the job. Bill Guerin was hired to take over and restore some trust from the players.

”We’ve got guys who have won in this league for a long time,” Guerin said, ”and I’m confident this group is going to bounce back.”

WHO’S HERE

The last moves Fenton made before he was fired were signing free agents Mats Zuccarello (five years, $30 million) for more offense from the top-six forwards and Ryan Hartman (two years, $3.8 million) for more toughness on the fourth line. The length of Zuccarello’s contract raised eyebrows, considering the Wild now have five players 32 or older among their eight highest salary cap charges. His experience, however, can’t hurt a team that could have as many as five players 23 or younger (centers Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek and wings Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato and Jordan Greenway) among the top three lines.

WHO’S NOT

After Fenton traded mainstays Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund last winter before the deadline, there wasn’t much left to change on the roster in the summer. Right wings Eric Fehr and Pontus Aberg and defensemen Nate Prosser and Anthony Bitetto, all bit players, were free agents who went elsewhere.

KEY PLAYERS

To keep up in the West, the Wild will need some of those under-24 players to break out. Fiala is under the most scrutiny, an underachieving 11th overall pick from the 2014 draft who came from Nashville in the deal for Granlund. Having a healthy Dumba, one of the NHL’s most productive defensemen, and Koivu, one of the best defensive forwards in the league, will go a long way toward helping the Wild play at their potential. Dumba had 12 goals in 32 games last season.

”If I can contribute 30 toward this team, I think we’re going to be pretty well off,” Dumba said.

OUTLOOK

After leading the league in percentage of goals by defensemen last season (20.9) and finishing tied for fifth in percentage of points by defensemen (26.3), the Wild have Dumba back to skate with Suter on the first pair. Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin are next, giving them one of the deepest blue line groups in the game.

While Devan Dubnyk has been one of the most durable goalies in the NHL, he has been more vulnerable lately. Last season, Dubnyk finished 14th in goals-against average among netminders with 27 or more games and tied for 21st in save percentage. Following their lowest goal total in five years, the Wild need a strong offensive start to the season to support Dubnyk during a daunting early schedule.

Starting Oct. 3 at Nashville, the Wild play six of their first seven games on the road. Including the home opener on Oct. 12 against Pittsburgh, they face three teams that hit the 100-point mark last season.

PREDICTION

The Wild tumbled down the stretch, going 4-9-1 over their final 14 games to finish 37-36-9. They landed in last place for the first time in 13 years, when they were in a five-team division under the NHL’s prior alignment. Even if Zuccarello can provide a scoring boost, Dumba re-establishes his pre-injury productivity and the presence of Guerin brings some badly needed positive vibes, the Wild face a steep climb back to the playoffs.

The Central Division is stacked, with defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas and Colorado all having qualified for the postseason last spring. Boudreau has the second-best record among active head coaches, behind only Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, but a best-case scenario would be getting one of the two Western Conference wild card spots. Missing the playoffs is more likely than not, with Guerin bound to take a patient approach to building a contender.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Under-drafted players who could help your team

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Welcome to the first adds/drops column of the 2019-20 NHL season. Every Monday, we’re going to recommend players that you might want to consider letting go of or putting on your fantasy hockey team in standard Yahoo leagues.

Given that we’re still in the preseason though, we’re going to do something a little different. This week, we’ve highlighted some players taken in less than 60% of Yahoo drafts who I think have a good chance of becoming meaningful producers this season.  Not all of these players are ones who should be added right away, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on.

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks (LW/RW, Drafted: 56%) – In a summer where many RFAs were fighting to redefine the market, Labanc wasted little time in agreeing to a one-year, $1 million contract. It’s an awfully low price after scoring 17 goals and 56 points in 82 games, but it signals a willingness to bet on himself. If he comes up big this season, he’ll be due for a massive raise, especially given that he’ll have arbitration rights. He won’t lack for motivation and at the age of 23, he should be able to continue to trend upwards.

Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (C, Drafted: 24%) – Not all first overall picks are created equal. Hischier was the top pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, but he didn’t come with the fanfare of Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews before him and the Devils’ latest first overall pick, Jack Hughes, is already looking like a bigger piece of the franchise’s future. All the same, Hischier does have untapped potential going into his third NHL campaign and with the Devils’ offense looking much deeper than it has in recent years, he should have more to work with too.

Nikita Gusev, New Jersey Devils (LW, Drafted: 20%) – Gusev is one of the most interesting X-Factors going into the 2019-20 campaign. If you looked at his KHL statistics alone, you’d be wondering if he was a potential superstar.  He had 17 goals and 82 points in 62 games with St. Petersburg SKA last season. To put that in perspective, Artemi Panarin had 62 points in 54 games with St. Petersburgh in his last season before his 77-point rookie showing with Chicago.  That said, KHL success doesn’t always translate directly into the NHL. Just ask Vadim Shipachyov or Ilya Kovalchuk. They were both stars with St. Petersburgh too, but Shipachyov’s NHL stint ended up including a goal in just three games while Kovalchuk was at best a mixed bag in his NHL comeback attempt. Still, there is certainly potential here and it seems like Gusev will get a chance to prove himself, likely as a mainstay on the Devils’ second line. Plus, for what it’s worth, he’s looked good so far in the preseason with two goals and four points in three games.

Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning (D, Drafted: 16%) – There’s no question that Shattenkirk’s tenure with the Rangers was a major disappointment and his stock has understandably tanked as a result. He’s still just 30-years-old though, so a comeback isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. He’s getting a fresh start with Tampa Bay and has plenty of motivation after being bought out over the summer. “This is obviously an important year for me to show everyone I’m back to my old self and prove that I can be a player in this League again,” Shattenkirk said via NHL.com.

Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins (G, Drafted: 13%) – If you’re not happy with your goaltending situation, you might want to take a long look at Halak. Obviously he’s not the starter in Boston and that’s not expected to change, but he’s likely to get far more work than your typical backup. He made 37 starts last season and that helped keep Tuukka Rask fresh for the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bruins use Halak regularly again this season and he should often be solid when he is used.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld.]

Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs (RW, Drafted: 10%) – This is more of a short-term pickup and even then, Kapanen is someone you want to keep an eye on during training camp rather than grab right away. He’s likely to spend most of the season as a third liner, but Zach Hyman will miss about a month of the regular season with a knee injury so that’s created a top-six opening that Kapanen is a favorite to fill. He’s been getting a chance alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner so far.

James Neal, Edmonton Oilers (LW/RW, Drafted: 8%) – Calgary signed Neal to a five-year, $28.75 million contract over in the summer of 2018 and that ended up being a disaster. How bad was it? So bad that swapping Neal for Milan Lucic and his albatross contract actually made sense to Calgary. Neal had just seven goals and 19 points in 63 games while averaging a career-low 14:57 minutes last season, but Edmonton will give him every opportunity to bounce back. The Oilers are desperate for secondary scoring to complement McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Neal might be able to fit in better than he did with the Flames. He’s far from a safe bet, but there are far worse gambles out there.

Corey Perry, Dallas Stars (RW, Drafted: 5%) – Perry can’t seem to catch a break. After being bought out by Anaheim over the summer, his comeback attempt has already been delayed due to a broken foot. That said, there is still reason to pay attention to him. What I really want to know is how he’s going to do with a healthy knee – something he hasn’t had in years.  Keep in mind that after he suffered a torn meniscus during a preseason game in 2018 and needed surgery as a result, it was decided to take that opportunity to also repair a MCL injury that he had been dealing with for years. Because he missed a large chunk of 2018-19 and played in a limited role when he did return, it’s still not clear how he’d perform if he were fully healthy.  Perhaps we’ll get the answer to that in Dallas…provided he doesn’t suffer any other setbacks.

Ryan Dzingel, Carolina Hurricanes (LW/RW, Drafted: 4%) – Dzingel took a big step forward last season with 26 goals and 56 points in 78 games, but he was passed over in the early rush of UFA contracts. That worked to the Hurricanes’ advantage though as they were able to scoop him up to an affordable two-year, $6.75 million contract. The Hurricanes are a pretty interesting team this season and Dzingel is well positioned to play a significant top-six role there. Keep an eye on him during training camp and the early part of the season because it will be interesting to see who his linemates are. They might end up being Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter, which would obviously be a pretty promising situation for Dzingel.

Alexander Nylander, Chicago Blackhawks (LW/RW, Drafted: <2%) – Nylander was taken with the eighth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, but through three seasons as part of the Sabres’ organization, he only appeared in 19 NHL games.  Chicago acquired him over the summer and there’s potentially a huge opportunity for him with the Blackhawks. There’s an opening on the top line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews that Nylander has been auditioning for. If he gets it, then he’ll definitely be worth taking a chance on in standard leagues.

Typically I’ll also be recommending players to drop in this column.  I’ll hold off on doing that this week because it’s too early to write anyone off.  I will say that there are some very obvious risky players who are being taken relatively early in fantasy drafts.  Mikko Rantanen (Avg. Draft Position: 24.2), Patrik Laine (42.3), Brayden Point (46.8), Dustin Byfuglien (56.2), Matthew Tkachuk (60.1), and Kyle Connor (115.7) all haven’t participated in training camp yet.  They’re out with the exception of Byfuglien, who isn’t with the team for personal reasons and is reportedly considering retirement.

Odds are their absence isn’t news to you, but it’s still worth repeating that missing training camp can hurt a player’s production during the regular season and the more time they miss, the bigger the impact will be even after they do return.  Drafting any of those players at this time is a big gamble and if you haven’t had your draft yet, then you’ll want to seriously consider avoiding them despite how good they can be under normal circumstances.  That of course changes if any of their situations are resolved in the next few days.

If you’re on the hunt for rankings, projections, strategy and advice on how to dominate your drafts, check out the all-new Rotoworld NHL Draft Guide. Now mobile-optimized with a new look and feel, it’s never been easier to take our award-winning advice with you to your drafts for that extra competitive edge! Click here to learn more!

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

Previewing the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

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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: If we are comparing the Wild right now to where they were at the beginning of the 2018-19 season it would be difficult to argue that they are better following the in-season trades of Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle. But if we are comparing them to where they were at the end of the 2018-19 season they might be a little better. Mats Zuccarello is another big-money player on the wrong side of 30, but he is still good. Mikko Koivu and Matthew Dumba are returning after missing significant portions of the 2018-19 season. There is also some potential with younger players to maybe take a step forward. The important question is whether or not those improvements are enough to get them back in the playoffs and help them return to contention in the Western Conference.

Strengths: The top half of their defense is really good with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Dumba leading the way. Suter is the biggest name and the one that gets most of the attention because he never seems to leave the ice, but don’t overlook the other two. Spurgeon just signed a seven-year contract extension to remain with the team and has been a criminally underrated player for most of his career. Dumba, meanwhile, brings a ton of offensive potential from the blue line and was in the middle of a breakout season until an injury sustained in a fight sidelined him for most of the season. Behind them they have an above average goalie in Devan Dubnyk serving as the last line of defense. When he is on his game, he can carry the team and has been one of the league’s most productive goalies since joining the team in them middle of the 2014-15 season.

Weaknesses: The Wild have a lot of really good veteran players and some young players that could become really good players. What they are lacking is great players. They don’t really have anyone that can be a difference-making, impact player that puts the team on their back for a game (or a stretch of games) and carries it. That kind of limits what your team’s ceiling is among the league’s hierarchy of contenders. The other concern is the age of the core. With Spurgeon now re-signed, they now have six players over the age of 30 signed for at least two more seasons. Several of those players are signed beyond the age of 35. How will all of those players hold up during those contracts?

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Bruce Boudreau is entering his fourth season as the Wild’s head coach and is already going to be working with his third different general manager. That is kind of shocking, not only because the Wild have gone through that much change in their front office, but that the head coach has outlasted all of it. We will put his hot seat rating as a 6 out of 10. He does not have one foot out the door, but he is probably not totally secure, either.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jason Zucker, Zach Parise, and Kevin Fiala are the three players worth keeping a close eye on this season.

One of the more bizarre aspects of Paul Fenton’s one year of error in Minnesota was his apparent burning desire to trade Zucker. He has not only been one of the team’s best two-way players and a popular member of the community, but Fenton was also trying to sell him at what was probably his lowest possible value. A similar move with Niederreiter went about as poorly as could have been expected, and repeating the same mistake with Zucker would have been crushing. As it stands now, Zucker is back in Minnesota and should be poised to have a bounce back year offensively.

Speaking of bounce back years, Parise went through one of his own during the 2018-19 season and saw pretty significant improvements in his production across the board. He is almost certainly never going to be a 40-goal, 90-point player again, but was his bounce back a one-year outlier in what has been a steady decline in recent years? Or can the Wild expect similar production this season?

Of all the players Fenton acquired during the 2018-19 season the one that seems most intriguing is Fiala. He is still only 23 years old, has already shown 20-goal ability in the NHL, and has some fairly promising underlying numbers to his game. He is a better player than what he showed immediately after the trade.

Playoffs or lottery: There is a short-term path back to the playoffs for this team, but a lot of things need to go right in order for that to happen. Realistic outcome is this looks like a team that finishes somewhere between 7th and 11th in the Western Conference. Not good enough to truly contend, but not bad enough to play its way into the highest draft lottery odds.

More
Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.