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After tough start, JVR is showing why Flyers brought him back

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For a while there, JVR felt a little … well, JV for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Two main factors seemed to complicate things for James van Riemsdyk as he tried to justify that five-year, $35 million contract to return to Philly. The first was a freak injury, right in the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

The other was even more out of JVR’s hands than the bad luck of getting hurt: the Flyers were transitioning from Wayne Simmonds to JVR, particularly on the power play, and it wasn’t exactly a seamless passing of the torch.

[JVR came into this season under pressure.]

Bumpy start

Flyers coach Scott Gordon saw JVR’s season firsthand, as he went from hurt and a bit lost to his current red-hot streak, where van Riemsdyk now has 10 goals in his last 11 games.

“I think being out that time and not really …he almost didn’t have a role with the team for a while there,” Gordon said, via Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post. “He wasn’t playing as much power-play time, not playing as much top-six ice time and so now I find he’s skating more consistent, getting involved in the play up and down the ice and just has the puck more often. Getting to the front of the net more often obviously, whether it’s a tip or a rebound, that’s critical for anybody but to do that you’ve got to be around the net and he’s been around the net more.”

The turnaround truly has been remarkable, as JVR now has 25 goals and 42 points despite being limited to 56 games played.

2019 has been kind to JVR, so far

JVR is tied for the second-most goals since 2019 began with 20, and no player has more goals than his nine since the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

As with any sniper who’s scoring at an even higher level than usual, a hot streak will eventually be iced, and that’s true with JVR. His 18.8 shooting percentage overall this season is a little high – even for a player who has a knack for getting to the areas of the ice where you can get quality shots, and one who is among the best at finishing such chances – and his luck has been even better lately.

But, to me, it’s the renewed clarity of it all that bodes well for JVR’s short-term future, and the Flyers’ chances of getting the most out of him in 2019-20.

Yes, scoring nine times on 35 shots on goal (25.7 shooting percentage) is unsustainable, but it’s a great sign that van Riemsdyk is firing the puck that often.

It sure seems like JVR isn’t just getting the green light, but that he knows it. Not only does he have eight goals in as many March games, but after averaging 16:26 TOI or less in previous months this season, he’s averaged 18:18 per game during March. That’s an exciting development for a player who went from heavy usage during Toronto’s awkward years, to being shuttled into more of a specialist role during his final two seasons with the Maple Leafs. The thought was that JVR scored incredibly well considering a bit under 16 minutes of ice time in 2016-17 and a bit under 15 in 2017-18, so imagine what he could do with fuller minutes … but he was sort of relegated to that same, more supporting duty through most of this first season.

If the Flyers carry over this finish to giving JVR a heightened role in 2019-20, they might just enjoy the sort of rewards that would get people to look at his $7M as a bargain.

… At least for a while.

Will it all line up?

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher faces an interesting question, with an invisible deadline from Father Time: can he put a few more pieces together to take advantage of what this team has, before a decline happens?

JVR is already 29, and will turn 30 in May. Jakub Voracek is 29 as well, while Claude Giroux is 31.

For every Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and other player who continues to play at a high level past age 30, there are scary examples of other steep declines. The stories are especially frightening for power forward-types like JVR. Wayne Simmonds himself has already been showing signs of decay, while Milan Lucic and James Neal rank as some of the starkest examples of how steep the falls can be.

Will the Flyers be able to best take advantage of the remaining high-level years of productivity, however many there might be? As much as Philly can look at many positive developments heading into 2019-20 (and beyond), it remains to be seen if they can make all the pieces fall into place at the perfect time to contend – for real – for at least a few years.

If nothing else, JVR looks far more capable of being a big part of that solution as of today, compared to earlier this season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s best coaching jobs this season

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There is not a single aspect of the NHL that is more difficult to evaluate and analyze than coaching.

Want to know how difficult it is and how bad we tend to be at it?

Just look at the past, oh let’s say, 10 Jack Adams Award winners and see how many of them are still with the team they won it with, or how many of them were fired within a year or two of winning it. It is stunning how many of them are gone within two years.

Either they forgot how to coach in that time since winning, or we picked the wrong winners.

The coach of the year usually goes to a coach whose team exceeded expectations and snuck into the playoffs, likely on the back of a superhuman performance by a goalie that carried the team. Pick a Coach of the Year winner and then take a look at how the starting goalie performed throughout the season. There is going to be a fairly strong correlation.

This season the coach of the year award has seemingly been a one-horse race involving New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, only lately getting a little bit of pressure from Rick Tocchet in Arizona.

Given the circumstances around those two teams it is understandable.

But have those two coaches actually been the best coaches in the league this year and done the best job? Maybe, but maybe not.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the eight best coaching jobs in the NHL this season, and there are a couple of names at the top you might not be thinking of at the moment. We are not looking for the coach that has benefitted the most from a goalie, or a coach whose teams marginally exceeded expectations.

We are looking for the coaches that have done the best job in the NHL.

You probably will not like it, but hear us out.

1. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues. When the Blues fired Mike Yeo in mid-November they looked like a team that was going nowhere. They had been shutout in three of their previous four games, had only won seven of their first 19, and just had absolutely nothing going for them. They were completely mediocre across the board, and in some cases, completely stunk. Offensively, defensively, goaltending. All of it. It was a dreadful looking team that seemed doomed to a forgettable, wasted season.

Enter Berube and new starting goalie Jordan Binnington.

The easy thing here is to assume that Binnington’s play is key factor driving the Blues’ turnaround, and to a point, he is. He has helped fix what was a black hole in net and is putting together an incredible rookie season. But it’s not just him, and this can not be emphasized enough.

There is real improvement within the rest of the team since the coaching change.

First, some numbers looking at Mike Yeo’s final 53 games behind the Blues’ bench and Berube’s first 53 games.

The overall possession numbers are better. The shot attempt numbers dropped significantly. Their ability to control scoring chances improved. All of that together, plus a solidified goaltending position, has dramatically improved the record.

If you look at the numbers in the context of this season alone the numbers are even more striking.

That is real, team-wide improvement that isn’t just related to the goaltending change.

Keep in mind that Berube also did not have Alex Pietrangelo for 10 games in December and spent two months without David Perron, one of the team’s leading scorers, from mid-January until mid-March. He is also coaching without Vladimir Tarasenko at the moment.

They are simply a totally different team under Berube, and not be a small amount, either.

2. Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins. This is not the NHL’s deepest roster, and we already know this. We already know this because we have been saying “what about their depth?” for two seasons now.

Keep that in mind and then consider how many games some of their top players — the players that have to carry the most weight for this team because they do not have a ton of depth — have missed this season.

Patrice Bergeron has missed 15 games.
David Pastrnak has missed 15 games.
Charlie McAvoy has missed 26 games.
Jake DeBrusk has missed 13 games.
Zdeno Chara is 41 years old and has missed 18 games.
Torey Krug has missed 12 games.

There are more, but these are the big ones.

It would stand to reason that a team that was already thin on depth, and playing in a division with two of the best teams in the league, might struggle a bit.

Not even close. Entering Monday the Bruins have the NHL’s third best record, are a top-five possession team, and probably already giving Toronto Maple Leafs fans nightmares about their inevitable first-round playoff matchup. Cassidy is not getting enough credit for the job he has done this season. Not by a long shot.

3. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning. Cooper is the coach that simply can not win the coach of the year award because his team is too good, which is just plain dumb. As if it’s easy to just win 55 of your first 72 games no matter how much talent you have at your disposal.

He didn’t have his starting goalie for a month and went 12-3-0 with Louis Domingue playing every game (and not playing all that well, I might add) during that stretch. Insane.

We have tried to turn the MVP into an award that a player can’t win if their team is too good (they don’t need you!) or not good enough (they lost with you they can lose without you!) and only seems to go to the best player on a mediocre team that sneaks into the playoffs as first-round cannon fodder for a Stanley Cup contender.

The Jack Adams Award has become the exact same thing. We only give it to the coach of a team that was bad the year before and then barely made the playoffs, whether it was the coaching that got them there or not.

Here is a secret: Great teams can have great coaches, too. The Lightning are a great team with a great coach.

4. Pete DeBoer, San Jose Sharks. Like Cooper, another coach that probably won’t get enough credit because of the talent on his team.

Here is the argument for him: The Sharks have the second-worst team save percentage in the NHL at .893. That is an appallingly abysmal number. It is such a fantastically bad performance by the duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell that this team has no business being anywhere near the top of its division and the top of the Western Conference standings.

They are the only team in the NHL that currently occupies a playoff spot and sits lower than 20th in team save percentage.

Here is where the other teams ranked 20th or lower (in order) sit in the league-wide standings.

19th
21st
26th
29th
30th
31st
17th
23rd
22nd
28th
4th (this is the Sharks)
20th

Goaltending this bad is supposed to be impossible to win with. I know the Sharks have a lot of talent, but they’re not the only team in this tier with a talent on their roster, and goaltending has sunk all of them.

Oh, and the Sharks have also been without Erik Karlsson for a significant chunk of the season. And they are still steamrolling teams and one point back of the top spot in the Western Conference … with no goaltending to speak of.

DeBoer is like … the bizarro Jack Adams winner. Instead of being a coach whose team has climbed to the top of the standings on the back of his goalie he has climbed to the top in spite of his goalies.

5. Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes. If I were a betting man I would say that if the Coyotes make the playoffs that Tocchet is going to win the coach of the year award, and probably by a wide margin. This is what Jack Adams Award votes live for. The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago, have missed the playoffs six years in a row, and have been absolutely decimated by injuries all season, crippling what was already a thin roster. Heck, even losing just starting goalie Antti Raanta could have been enough to ruin their season, even without all of the others.

But here they are, holding a playoff position in mid-March and seemingly in the driver’s seat to take a Wild Card spot. Darcy Kuemper deserves the bulk of the credit for that, but the injury situation has definitely been a huge hurdle, and it would have been really easy for this team to just pack it in and self destruct. They haven’t, and the coaching staff deserves credit for that.

[Related: Coyotes’ GM on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence]

6. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders. Trotz deserves a ton of credit for taking over what looked to be a sinking ship of a franchise at the start of the season and, quite frankly, not allowing it to completely sink.

They missed the playoffs a year ago, lost their best player to free agency, entered the season with three of their top-four returning forwards in contract years, and there really wasn’t any reason for anyone to believe in this team. So far, they have proved a lot of people wrong and made a pretty stunning turn around to go from one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era to what is, currently, the best defensive team in the league when it comes to preventing goals.

That is worth a lot.

But this goes back to what we talked about up at the top. How much of that is the coaching of Trotz, and how much of that is the result of the Islanders’ two goalies producing the league’s best save percentage? And if that is the result of coaching, how much of that is Trotz and how much of it is the work of goalie coaches Piero Greco and Mitch Korn? I am not saying that Trotz hasn’t had a positive influence on the team, because he almost certainly has. He is a great coach and his resume in the league speaks to that. I just don’t know that he or the Islanders would be having this kind of season without stunning play of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

They are the true difference-makers this season.

7. Bill Peters, Calgary Flames. In most years Peters would be the type of coach that would be a slam-dunk Jack Adams winner. A first-year coach, taking over a non-playoff team a year ago, and driving them to the top of the Conference standings. But with teams like the Islanders and Coyotes exceeding expectations, Berube helping to turn around the Blues, the Hurricanes becoming relevant again, he just seems like he is going to be lost in the shuffle. It is unfortunate because his team has been legitimately good, and I almost wonder if this is what the Hurricanes would have looked like the past few years with a couple of more finishers and some decent goaltending on their roster.

8. Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes. There is definitely a different vibe around this team, and not just because of the storm surge celebrations that are driving some people mad.

It just finally feels like everything is starting to click for a team that always had promising young talent but could never really put it together.

The thing about the Hurricanes’ climb up the standings is there’s not really much difference in their actual performance from an analytics standpoint.

They have always been one of the best possession teams in the league, and they still are.

They have always been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league, and they still are.

The two things that always sunk them were goaltending and not enough forwards that could actually finish. The big change this season is that Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to give them competent goaltending they needed to actually look like the good defensive team they have always been, and they found a couple of forwards with real finishing ability in prized rookie Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Neiderreiter, who they stole from the Minnesota Wild.

Brind’Amour has done a great job, but even with all of the losing in recent years there was still a strong foundation in place. They just needed the right move or two to bring it all together.

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.

Bruins’ Pastrnak back skating in familiar spot following injury

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It looks like the Boston Bruins are on the verge of getting one of their top players back from injury. On Monday morning, winger David Pastrnak was back on the ice with his teammates, according to NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty. He was skating on the right side of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, which means one of the top lines in hockey could be reunited as soon as tomorrow night.

Pastrnak has missed the last 16 games with a thumb injury he suffered after a team function in Boston. The 22-year-old was having a career year before going down, as he had 31 goals and 66 points in 56 contests with the Bruins in 2018-19.

The scary thing is that the Bruins hardly missed him while he was out of the lineup. Without Pastrnak, Boston went 12-3-1, and all three of those regulation losses came last week.

“We’re in a good stretch, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go the other way,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier this month, per Boston.com. “We have to work hard to get our goals and to feel that we’re consistently a threat to get a good number of goals, but we need to stick with it and make sure we don’t get away from it. Some of it has to do with Jake [DeBrusk] getting hot and hopefully we get a few other guys going and we’ll go from there.

“You know, Pasta [Pastrnak] should add offense. He’s done it consistently in the league. He did it last year in the playoffs. So you know, when he comes back we hope he finds it quickly, but again that’s not an automatic either.”

Assuming Pastrnak returns to the lineup tomorrow against the Islanders, that will give him 10 full games of action before the start of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Haggs also had an update on some of the Bruins’ other injured players:

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.

Saturday was good for Hurricanes, bad for Penguins, ugly for Habs

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As this PHT post argues, the Montreal Canadiens haven’t been particularly lucky lately, but Saturday pushed such thoughts to the extreme.

The Habs fired a robust 48 shots on goal against Corey Crawford, but couldn’t beat the veteran goalie once. With that, the Blackhawks won 2-0, handing Montreal not just a loss, but a defeat in regulation.

The Canadiens can’t even really look on the one broad bright side of Saturday (that a lot of other East teams struggled), either, as the most crucial ones gained ground while Montreal’s running out of time to get its act together.

(That’s particularly true of that putrid power play, which went 0-for-4 on Saturday.)

The Canadiens are now stalling out at 81 points in 72 games played. Here’s a rundown of the rest of today’s most pertinent East action, in order of teams with the most on the line.

Blue Jackets lose, but they get a point

Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron made the difference for the Boston Bruins in a 2-1 OT win, as the dynamic duo generated a goal and an assist apiece. While Montreal can’t question its overall effort, Columbus might be at least a bit frustrated with the fact that they only forced Jaroslav Halak to face 25 SOG.

The Blue Jackets gain a step on Montreal, finishing the night with 84 points in 72 GP.

Hurricanes have the best Saturday of anyone at or near the bubble

After former Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner scored early into Saturday’s game, Carolina scored four straight goals to eventually win 4-2. Justin Williams‘ 21st goal of 2018-19 was really something:

Carolina is likely more focused on Tuesday’s opponent slightly ahead of them for the Metro third spot (the Penguins), than the Hurricanes are about the bubble teams behind them. Carolina now has 85 points in 71 GP.

Penguins lose badly

Speaking of Pittsburgh, they had a rough afternoon, falling to the Blues 5-1 despite 41-26 SOG advantage. As rocky as his St. Louis start was, moments like these make you wonder if Patrick Maroon might benefit the Blues more when the games get bigger:

(Nice to see those “NHL 19” moves work out in real life every now and then, huh?)

The Penguins failed to gain breathing room ahead of Carolina (and Columbus, to a lesser extent), and also didn’t give themselves a better chance at the Metro’s second seed, as the Penguins sit at 87 points in 72 GP.

Most likely Metro Division winners idle

Both the Capitals (91 points in 72 GP) and Islanders (89 points in 71 GP) lost in regulation in their respective games, falling short of improving their odds at a division title. The Islanders leave themselves at least somewhat vulnerable to losing a round of home-ice advantage, depending upon how things shake out.

***

So, almost everyone lost, with the Blue Jackets at least salvaging a very, very important point. All things considered, you can’t totally blame the Hurricanes if they’re thinking big — as in at least rising above the wild-card ranks.

Looking at the landscape, the Canadiens must be awfully worried. It doesn’t look great for their chances, so they need to turn things around soon. This crisis of confidence is coming at a terrible time for a team that exceeded just about everyone’s expectations this season.

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.

Should Bruins be worried about recent slump?

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Between Dec. 29 and Mar. 9, the Boston Bruins lost a grand total of three games in regulation. That two-and-a-half month stretch didn’t allow them to close the gap between themselves and the Atlantic-Division leading Tampa Bay Lightning, but it created some space between themselves and the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs.

Over the last few days, things have changed for the Bruins. They’re no longer one of the red-hot teams in the NHL. Instead, they’ve dropped three games in a row in regulation to the Penguins, Blue Jackets and Jets. Falling behind early has been a major issue in all three of those losses.

Last Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Bruins conceded the first two goals of the game. Tuesday night in Columbus, they scored the first goal but wound up allowing Columbus to score three unanswered goals before the end of the opening frame. And last night, they spotted Winnipeg a 2-0 lead before the 12-minute mark of the first.

“Poor starts, first and foremost,” forward Patrice Bergeron said after the loss to the Jets, per NHL.com. “We shot ourselves in the foot at the start of every game [in the losing streak], so tough to get back in this league. Tough to do that every night. And we’ve done it on the tail end of our [19-game] point streak.”

The Bruins won’t want to hear this, but it’s impossible for most teams to roll from December through April without so much as a hiccup. This was bound to happen. They played a stretch of tough road games so it only made sense that this mini slump would occur now.

“Listen, I don’t like to lose one in a row so there’s always concern,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “There’s different factors that go into it. I think we played three very good hockey teams this week, that’s part of it. Part of it is, as mentioned, is we haven’t started on time so we’ve put ourselves in a hole so we’re playing catch-up every night. That’s a bad formula in the National Hockey League.”

If you’re a Bruins fan looking for tiny positives at this point, you can just look at the slight improvement in each of the first periods over the last three games. They went from a 17.39 percent CF% in the first 20 minutes against the Pens, to 47.62 percent against the Blue Jackets, to 55.88 percent against the Jets last night, per Natural Stat Trick (I told you it was a small positive).

It’s also important to note that they’ve been dealing with some significant injuries of late. In last night’s game, they were without: Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Marcus Johansson, David Pastrnak, Matt Grzelcyk and Jake DeBrusk. Many of those players will return before the end of the regular season, which means the Bruins will only be getting deeper over the next few weeks.

The schedule will also get easier for them. After Saturday’s home game against Columbus, the Bruins will play five of the next seven games away from the TD Garden, but they’ll have dates with non-playoff teams like the Devils, Panthers (twice), Rangers and Red Wings.

There’s still a lot of time for the Bruins to get back on track before the playoffs start in April. There’s no need to hit the panic button just yet.

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.