Olli Maatta

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Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

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.

Trade: Blackhawks continue defense overhaul, get de Haan from Hurricanes

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Defense was a huge issue for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2018-19 season and they are already making some moves this summer to try and address it.

That continued on Monday evening when the team announced it has acquired Calvin de Haan and forward Aleksei Saarela from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Gustav Forsling and goalie Anton Forsberg.

The Hurricanes signed de Haan to a four-year, $18.2 million contract in free agency a year ago. Known more for his defensive play than anything offensively, he played in 74 games for the Hurricanes this past season, scoring one goal to go with 13 assists. He underwent shoulder surgery after the season and is facing a four-to-six month recovery time, so he may not be ready at the start of the season.

His addition to the Blackhawks’ blue line comes a little more than one week after the team traded forward Dominik Kahun to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Olli Maatta.

de Haan and Maatta join a Blackhawks team that was one of the league’s worst defensive teams at 5-on-5, finishing in the bottom-10 in goals against, shots against, shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes, via Natural Stat Trick.

In several of those categories they were among the bottom-three teams in the league. It is obviously an area that needed to be addressed as longtime staples Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook continue to age and their younger prospects continue to get their feet wet in the NHL.

Maatta and de Haan are not superstars, and neither one is going to provide much in the way of point production, but they can definitely help in their own end of the ice.

As for the Hurricanes side of this, clearing salary cap space appears to be the name of the game (perhaps the sign of another move coming?) as moving de Haan sheds more than $4 million in cap space over each of the next three seasons.

Forsberg and Forsling are both restricted free agents this summer.

Forsling, 23, has spent three years in the NHL with the Blackhawks and recorded 27 points in 122 career games. Given the state of Carolina’s blue line even after trading de Haan he still probably only figures to be, at best, a third-pairing defender.

Forsberg is the player that could get the biggest opportunity. The Hurricanes could buy out the remainder of Scott Darling’s contract at any time, while the duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney from this past season are both eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

The 26-year-old Forsberg has appeared in 45 NHL games with the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets, recording a .901 save percentage.

Related
Penguins trade Olli Maatta to Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun, draft pick

Hurricanes get Marleau from Maple Leafs, could buy him out

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.

2019 NHL Draft primer: Hughes vs. Kakko; draft bloodlines

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VANCOUVER — The Stanley Cup Final is over, the NHL Awards have been handed out, so it’s now time to look toward the future as the NHL Draft arrives this Friday and Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. Here’s the rundown of some of the biggest topics heading into the weekend.

When is the 2019 NHL Draft?

Round 1 is Friday night, June 21 beginning at 8 p.m. ET (livestream). (Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.) Rounds 2-7 will be held Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. ET. You can watch full coverage on NBCSN and on the NBC Sports app.

Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will host coverage alongside Pierre McGuire and NHL Insiders Bob McKenzie, Craig Button and Darren Dreger.

The last time Vancouver hosted the draft was 2006 when Erik Johnson went first overall to the St. Louis Blues.

Who’s going No. 1 and No. 2?

It’ll be Jack Hughes to the New Jersey Devils with the first pick, followed by Kaapo Kakko to the New York Rangers at second overall. These two have been the consensus top picks all season long and despite a late push by the Finnish forward with a very strong performance at the World Championship, Ray Shero will be announcing the American forward’s name Friday night, two years after he chose Nico Hischier with the top pick.

If the top two picks are decided, what about No. 3?

This is where the draft really starts and the fun begins. The Chicago Blackhawks hold the third pick. It’s only the second time the franchise has had a top 10 pick since 2007 when they took Patrick Kane No. 1 overall. GM Stan Bowman selected defenseman Adam Boqvist with the eighth pick last year and he could go that route again with Bowen Byram (Vancouver, WHL). But after taking defensemen in the last two drafts and adding Olli Maatta this week via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, they may leaning toward a forward. Alex Turcotte (U.S. National Team Development Program, USHL) is a local kid; Kirby Dach (Saskatoon, WHL) was nearly a point-per-game player in junior and has size at 6-foot-4, 198 lbs.; Then you have Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge, WHL), and the U.S. National Team Development Program trio of Matthew Boldy, Trevor Zegras, and Cole Caufield to choose from.

[MORE: Rotoworld’s 2019 Mock Draft]

What’s going to happen with Vasili Podkolzin?

The talented forward has two years remaining on his contract with SKA St. Petersburg and he plans on honoring it. The No. 2 ranked international skater on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings, Podkolzin is hoping teams will show patience and wait the two years before he’s able to come over. That extra development could bode well for a team if they pick him as many scouts and draft analysts don’t see many players in this class jumping into the NHL next season outside of Hughes and Kakko. 

Will Spencer Knight join an exclusive goalie club?

Among the numerous USNTDP players likely to go in Round 1 Friday night, Knight, the top-ranked North American goaltender by NHL Central Scouting, is likely to hear his name called. If selected, Knight would become only the seventh netminder to be picked in the first round since 2009. Only 19 goalies have been taken in Round 1 since 2003.

It’s going to be a good year for USA Hockey

Nineteen players from the USNTDP Under-18 team were included on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for North American players (17 skaters, 2 goalies). That includes the No. 1 spot for skaters (Hughes) and goaltenders (Knight), along with half the top 10 for skaters and half the top four for goaltenders.

What kind of family ties and NHL bloodlines are we looking at in 2019?

Among the bloodlines in the 2019 draft… Jack Hughes’ brother, Quinn, plays for the Vancouver Canucks. Nick Robertson’s brother, Jason, was picked by the Dallas Stars in 2017. Ryan Suzuki’s brother, Nick, went 13th overall to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. Jonathan Williams’ cousin is Ben Bishop. Julius Honka‘s brother, Anttoni, is eligible to be drafted this year. Max Paddock’s uncle John was a longtime NHL coach. John Farinacci’s uncle is Ted Donato, making Ryan Donato his cousin. Nolan Foote is looking to join his dad, Adam, and brother, Callan, as NHL players. Alex Vlasic is cousins with Marc-Edouard. Alexander Lundqvist’s uncle is Nicklas Lidstrom. Mason Primeau’s dad is Wayne and his uncle is Keith. Nathan Staios’ dad, Steve, played 1,001 NHL games.

Who needs to hit a homerun in the draft?

If you’re the Los Angeles Kings and you’re in the middle of trying to get younger, you need to strengthen the prospect cupboard during this transition phase. It might be two years before they’re playoff contenders again, which would align with bringing along a Kirby Dach, Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Cole Caufield, or Trevor Zegras. Ken Holland’s scouting staff in Detroit helped the team build a good prospect collection and help turn them into NHL players. Now in Edmonton, and holding the No. 8 pick, he’ll need that kind of draft success in order to turn the Oilers around.

Is it going to be a quiet or loud weekend on the trade front?

Well, that depends. After news this week that the NHL and NHLPA are still finalizing the salary cap range for the 2019-20 season, and we won’t get an answer until likely Saturday, that could put a pause on any trades this weekend. Teams will want to know what limits they’re working with before they go pursue any big fish in the pond. The cap ceiling may not increase higher than $82M for next season, which would be lower than the $83M projection general managers were given in December.

If there are trades, who’s most likely to be dealt?

Third time might be the charm for Jason Zucker and the Minnesota Wild. After failing to send him to the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline, and then having their hopes of a swap with the Pittsburgh Penguins fall short because Phil Kessel shut that down, GM Paul Fenton will have to look elsewhere to ship the 27-year-old forward. Jesse Puljujarvi‘s time in Edmonton seems up and a “change of scenery” deal is coming for him. With the way Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher has been active of late, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make another move as he reshapes the team. Could Shayne Gostisbehere be the odd-man out on a crowded blue following the additions of Justin Braun and Radko Gudas?

Are the Penguins going to finally draft in Round 1?

The Penguins have made only one pick since 2012 in the first round when they took Kasperi Kapanen 22nd overall in 2014. GM Jim Rutherford, and Ray Shero before him, have used their top pick in trades as they contended and won two Stanley Cups in the last seven years. Following a disappointing playoff exit and the trade rumors that have swirled around the team since, it would be wise yet again to use that first pick as trade bait if they can acquire a player to help them contend again in 2019-20. Sidney Crosby is turning 32 this summer and Evgeni Malkin‘s 33rd birthday is next month. The two superstars are still playing at an elite level, so why wait two-plus years for a late-round prospect to develop when you can potentially add an impact player now?

SLAP SHOTS:
• Jack Hughes will join Brian Lawton (1983: North Stars), Mike Modano (1988: North Stars), Bryan Berard (1995: OTT), Rick DiPietro (2000: NYI), Erik Johnson (2006: STL), Patrick Kane (2007: CHI), and Auston Matthews (2016: TOR) as the only Americans to be selected with the first overall pick.

• The Avalanche, Kings, Sabres, and Ducks are the only teams with multiple picks in Round 1.

• The Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs, Sharks, and Blues are the only teams without a first round pick.

• The Devils, Kings, Red Wings, Canadiens, Hurricanes have the most picks in the draft with 10, while the Blue Jackets (Round 3 and Round 7) have the fewest with two.

The full Round 1 draft order:
1. New Jersey
2. NY Rangers
3. Chicago
4. Colorado (from OTT)
5. Los Angeles
6. Detroit
7. Buffalo
8. Edmonton
9. Anaheim
10. Vancouver
11. Philadelphia
12. Minnesota
13. Florida
14. Arizona
15. Montreal
16. Colorado
17. Vegas
18. Dallas
19. Ottawa (from CBJ)
20. Winnipeg (from NYR)
21. Pittsburgh
22. Los Angeles (from TOR)
23. NY Islanders
24. Nashville
25. Washington
26. Calgary
27. Tampa Bay
28. Carolina
29. Anaheim (from SJS-BUF)
30. Boston
31. Buffalo (from STL)

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey
Dylan Cozens eager to make Yukon hockey history
Kakko ready to make NHL leap next season
NHL draft in 2020 awarded to Montreal

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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.

Which players might be on the move this week?

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Since the Stanley Cup Final came to an end last week, we’ve seen NHL general managers make a plethora of moves to bolster their teams. Jacob Trouba, Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen have already been moved and Kevin Hayes has inked a mega deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. But who else might be shipped to a different team in the coming days?

With the feeling of disappointment still fresh in most teams’ mind (except you, St. Louis), this is where general managers want to wheel-and-deal in order to make themselves as competitive as possible heading into next season. There’s always plenty of trade chatter at this time of year, but it appears as though there’s a real opportunity for us to see some blockbuster moves this summer.

There also appears to be a number of offer sheet possibilities, which is hard to believe because that’s a route general managers don’t typically jump on. But with so many superstar restricted free agents about to hit the market, it appears as though some teams may be willing to part with these players via trade instead of losing them to an offer sheet.

Alright, so let’s take a look at which players could be traded before the NHL Draft (Friday, 7:30 pm ET on NBCSN) or before NHL free agency begins.

Nikolaj Ehlers – W- Winnipeg Jets: The Jets probably don’t want to unload Ehlers, but their current cap situation might force them to. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has roughly $25 million in cap space at his disposal right now, but he has to re-sign Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Tyler Myers and Neal Pionk, who was recently acquired from the New York Rangers. Ehlers is about to enter the second year of his seven-year, $42 million extension ($6 million AAV). He posted 21 goals and a disappointing 37 points in 62 games last season. Again, those numbers were low for a player of his caliber but it’s clear that he possesses the talent to be a top-line player in the NHL. Teams should be lining up for his services.

P.K. Subban – D – Nashville Predators: Subban is just three years into his tenure with the Predators, but a group of high-priced defensemen could lead to him being on his way out the door. It would be surprising to see GM David Poile unload Subban so soon, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Subban has missed 16 and 19 games in two of his three seasons in Nashville and he’s entering his age 30 season. Could that play a factor in Poile’s decision? The Preds also have to sign captain Roman Josi to a long-term extension and he’s going to make way more than the $4 million they’re currently paying him.

Jason Zucker – W – Minnesota Wild: Zucker was reportedly part of the trade that would’ve seen Phil Kessel head to Minnesota from Pittsburgh. That puts the 27-year-old in a bit of an awkward position with his current team, so they may be forced to part ways with him soon. Zucker scored 21 goals and 21 assists in 81 games last season, but he’s just one year removed from a 33-goal and 64-point season. He has four years remaining on a contract that pays him $5.5 million per year.

Phil Kessel – W – Pittsburgh Penguins: Is a move still possible? You’d have to think that if Kessel is going to be traded, it will happen sometime before or during the NHL Entry Draft. The Pens seem motivated to move on from the veteran winger, and teams are desperate for goals so it seems like there’s still a chance he could end up somewhere else before the start of next season. Where is he willing to be moved to though?

Nazem Kadri – C – Toronto Maple Leafs: This potential move has nothing to do with Kadri’s ability to play. The 28-year-old is coming off a down year, but he’s still a quality center, which is hard to find in the NHL. The problem is that he allows his emotions to get the best of him in critical times. This year, a suspension forced him to watch from the press box as his team was eliminated in the first round by the Boston Bruins. Has he run out of chances in Toronto?

T.J. Brodie – D – Calgary Flames: Brodie has one year remaining on his contract. It comes with a cap hit of $4.65 million, which means he’ll probably be looking for a raise heading into next summer. The Flames have to re-sign some key parts like Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk and they have to find themselves a starting netminder before the start of the year. Brodie is a left-handed shot capable of playing over 20 minutes per game. The 29-year-old had nine goals and 34 points in 79 games this season.

William Karlsson – C – Vegas Golden Knights: Karlsson took off after he was claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft. The pending restricted free agent put up 43 goals and 78 points in his first year with the Golden Knights and he followed that up with 24 goals and 56 points last season. He’s a quality two-way center that will need to get a significant raise this offseason. The Golden Knights don’t have the salary cap space to bring him back without making another move or two, so he could be the target of an offer sheet after July 1st.

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.

Follow the money: Salary cap could spawn NHL trade frenzy

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Matt Niskanen wasn’t totally shocked when the Washington Capitals traded him to Philadelphia last week.

One look at their salary cap picture explained it.

”I know what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility,” he said.

General managers say there is more trade chatter now than at any time in recent years, and much of it has to do with a wide gap between the haves and have-nots across the NHL: A handful of teams know they will be up against the salary cap ceiling and many others have plenty of room and can use it to take on bad contracts to get better.

The salary cap was $79.5 million this past season, and there are fears that the new cap, which takes effect July 1, will be under the $83 million initial projection.

Still, the NHL trade market is heating up. Follow the money to see where it goes.

”One thing I think is really apparent is that there’s a commodity out there called the cap,” Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. ”I think that a lot of people are talking around those things as well. It’s an interesting dynamic this summer, so we’ll kind of see.”

Cheveldayoff’s Jets are on the selling side because they need to get new contracts done for budding star forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, and already have an established core signed to big-ticket deals. They traded defenseman Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers on Monday and aren’t done dealing.

The rebuilding Rangers are closer to the other end of the spectrum with almost $19 million in cap space to play with. They might be able to accelerate the climb back to the playoffs with some shrewd moves at the draft this weekend and beyond because they can spend to the cap and don’t need to win this year.

”Having cap space affords you conversations you couldn’t have before,” New York GM Jeff Gorton said. ”We’re in conversations and we’re talking to teams about things that maybe three or four years ago we weren’t able to do. There’s a lot of different avenues to do this, and there’s a lot of conversations that go into it as far as eating money or spending money or what you have to do. But definitely having cap space … it’s a big weapon to have as we move forward in our rebuild.”

The New Jersey Devils are in a similar spot. They are expected to take American center Jack Hughes with the first overall pick Friday – leaving Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko for the Rangers second – and might be a No. 1 defenseman and a few other additions away from being playoff contenders again.

Might a trade for Nashville’s P.K. Subban fit for New Jersey? The Devils not only have more than $30 million in cap space but a surplus of young forwards and prospects that could make for an intriguing offer to the Predators, who look poised to shake things up after back-to-back early playoff exits.

Pittsburgh is among the contending teams that need to shed salary to be under the cap. The Penguins began that process by sending defenseman Olli Maatta to Chicago for young forward Dominik Kahun and a draft pick , and winger Phil Kessel would have been on the move to Minnesota had he not vetoed the trade.

GM Jim Rutherford said he’s ”trying to retool” on the fly and won’t rule out trading someone like center Evgeni Malkin or defenseman Kris Letang.

”There’s been great players traded in this league, and if somebody comes along with a package that makes sense for the Penguins, we have to look at it,” Rutherford told 93.7-FM in Pittsburgh. ”We’re not finished making changes. I would expect that there will be a couple more before training camp starts.”

The same goes for San Jose, which re-signed two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson to a $92 million, 11-year contract and already cleared some room by dealing veteran blue liner Justin Braun to Philadelphia . The Sharks still have to re-sign impressive young forward Timo Meier and would love to bring back Joe Thornton and captain Joe Pavelski.

Of course, there’s only so much money to go around, which may force the Sharks to deal.

”Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” GM Doug Wilson said.

The Flyers, on the other hand, took advantage of their vast cap space by acquiring Niskanen, Braun and the rights to center Kevin Hayes, who was signed Wednesday to a $50 million, seven-year contract . It was the next step in their evolution from a building team to a contender.

”The past few years, the staff has worked hard to acquire as many young assets as possible and rebuild the foundation of the club,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. ”And at the right time, the idea has always been to more aggressively add some veteran pieces, and we feel we’ve done that now.”

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

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