Robin Lehner

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How concerning is Islanders’ recent play?

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It’s been a tale of two very different seasons so far for the New York Islanders.

It began with them storming out of the gate with a 16-3-2 record in their first 21 games. That start included a 17-game point streak where their only losses were a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins — a game where they surrendered a three-goal third period lead — and a 2-1 overtime loss to the Sharks. They were less than 30 minutes and maybe two or three shots away from matching the longest winning streak in NHL history.

Since then? It’s been a very different story. In the 27 games that have followed the Islanders have been the definition of average when it comes to their results. Their 12-12-3 record during that stretch gives them a points percentage of exactly .500, while they have gone from what looked to be a slam dunk playoff team with home ice in round 1, to one that is just a single point clear of a wild card spot (Columbus is right on their tails, while they are six points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division) and only three points clear of the non-playoff teams.

Depending on what happens on Tuesday in their game against the New York Rangers, combined with the results in Philadelphia (against Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Carolina (against a slumping Winnipeg Jets team), they could either maintain their current cushion, or see it shrink to as little as one point.

On one hand, every team is going to slump at some point during an 82-game season. But this is starting to become more than just a “slump.” We’re now at 27 games (more than 32 percent of the season) where they have struggled. They’ve been average to below average more than they’ve been successful at this point.

Digging down to a more recent sampling of games, the Islanders have won just five of their past 15 games with a few ugly losses in the middle of that. That includes two to the Rangers team they play on Tuesday, and a brutal loss over the weekend against Washington where they turned a 4-1 third period lead into a 6-4 defeat. This is currently the worst 15-game stretch they have had in a year-and-a-half under Barry Trotz, and their worst since they melted down during the stretch run of the 2017-18 season.

The Islanders are mostly the same team they were a year ago, not only in terms of the roster, but also the way they play. They do not score a lot of goals, they give up a ton of shots and regularly get outshot, but still remain one of the top goal prevention teams in the league overall. Lately, that has started to change.

In the 27 games since their point streak ended they have dropped down to 10th in the league in goals against per 60 minutes in all situations, and 14th in goals against per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play. Over the past 15 games, they are down to 13th and 24th respectively. It’s tough for any team to win giving up that many goals. It’s next to impossible for a team as offensively starved as the Islanders.

There are two things that should be a cause for concern here.

The first one is they miss Adam Pelech on defense. He may not be a household name around the league, but he is one of their best defensive players and has not played since Dec. 31. While their struggles started before that, he’s a difficult player to replace.

The second is that a lot of the Islanders’ success the past year-and-a-half has been goaltending driven. A year ago it was the duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. Lehner played at a Vezina Trophy level, and the perpetually underrated Greiss was a perfect complement in a platoon role. Every team that gets bombarded on the shot chart and still finds ways to prevent goals and wins thinks they’ve found the secret to something. But shot volume still matters, and if you’re giving up a lot of shots, it stands to reason that quality chances (and goals) will eventually follow. In the end, it still really comes down to elite goaltending.

Early this season the duo of Semyon Varlamov and Greiss was still giving them that, and the wins were still there.

Here’s the problem: They haven’t necessarily been bad lately. In the 27 game stretch that duo has a .915 save percentage which is not only FAR above the league average, it is 8th best in the league during that stretch. Of the top-14 teams in save percentage during that stretch, they are the only team that does not have a points percentage of at least .540.

Even during the past 15 games they are still getting exactly league average goaltending (.904). And they can’t win.

It’s not that the goaltenders have necessarily struggled lately, it’s that the Islanders’ success is built around them being great. When they are anything less than great — even if they are still very good — the team struggles. Badly.

Even before this recent regression they needed another scorer or two. With Pelech sidelined they might need another defensemen, too. But the biggest thing they need is for them to give their goaltenders more support and not be completely dependent on them.

 

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.

The Buzzer: Meet Matiss Kivlenieks; Booming Blackhawks and Blue Jackets

Matiss Kivlenieks Blue Jackets Blackhawks Buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bjorkstrand played a big role in the Blue Jackets’ fifth consecutive win. The Rangers carried a 1-0 lead into the third period, where Bjorkstrand scored both of Columbus’ goals for a 2-1 win. The first one was unassisted, while Bjorkstrand generated the game-winner with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Blue Jackets sit in the East’s first wild-card spot … for the time being.

Bjorkstrand now has 14 goals, putting him in range of last season’s career-high of 23. He finished Sunday at 25 points in 37 games this season.

2. Matiss Kivlenieks, also Columbus Blue Jackets

Don’t blame hockey fans if they say, “OK, now the Blue Jackets are just inventing European goalies.” At least we can latch onto the funny name and prolonged hot streak of Elvis Merzlikins.

Kivlenieks, 23, made a splash during his NHL debut on Sunday. The Latvia native stopped 31 of the 32 shots he faced against the Rangers, nabbing a win. Here are a few facts about Matiss, who might draw a few Henri Matisse references from an extremely select group of hockey fans:

  • Kivlenieks wend undrafted.
  • He didn’t exactly set the AHL on fire so far in 2019-20, going 7-7-2 with a weak .896 save percentage.
  • Kivlenieks didn’t really put up very good stats in the AHL in 2018-19 or 2017-18, either. He fared better during eight ECHL appearances in 2018-19, though, managing a .923 save percentage.
  • The “Joker” mask indicates that there’s a chance he is corny.

Numbers at lower levels guarantee little, but they’re better than nothing. Kivlenieks doesn’t really check that box, but then again, neither did Andrew Hammond. So who knows? Goalies: they’re odd.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks

Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blackhawks have won five in a row. To some degree, that boils down to hot play from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (who reached 1,000 points on Sunday).

Don’t discount Lehner’s role in helping Chicago persist in the playoff bubble, though. Despite a significant drop-off in defensive play around him compared to his Islanders run, Lehner continues to look strong in net. He made 36 saves on Sunday to improve to 15-7-4 with a strong .924 save percentage. That’s really not far off from last season’s outstanding .930 mark, which helped Lehner become a Vezina finalist.

Sunday presented some solid honorable mentions. Sidney Crosby collected two assists during the Penguins’ surprising comeback against the Bruins. (Check out Crosby’s no-look pass.) Lehner’s teammate Alex Nylander collected a goal and an assist, and so on.

Highlights of the Night

Justin Williams did more than just return to the Hurricanes and NHL on Sunday. He also scored the shootout-deciding goal and led a “Storm Surge.” (Read this for more on Williams’ triumphant return.)

Patrick Kane didn’t just reach 1,000 points. He did so in style:

Factoids

  • Kane became the youngest U.S.-born player to reach 1,000 points. Consider this post to be its own factoids section on Kane’s milestone.
  • The Penguins joined the Panthers in generated three comeback wins from down three goals or more, according to NHL PR. (Pittsburgh also pulled that off in 2008-09.) The league notes that only three teams have generated more comeback wins from such deficits, all at four: the Red Wings in 1989-90, and both the 1983-84 Oilers and 1983-84 North Stars.
  • Uh oh. Connor Hellebuyck sports a troubling .897 save percentage over his last 16 games after managing a .933 mark during his first 16, according to TSN’s Statscentre. Hellebuyck grabs my current hypothetical Vezina vote in part because he’s carried such a burden for the Jets. Maybe he’s starting to wear down?

Scores

PIT 4 – BOS 3
CAR 2 – NYI 1 (SO)
CBJ 2 – NYR 1
CHI 5 – WPG 2

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 Morning Skate: Diving into problems for Devils, Canadiens

Canadiens Devils Morning Skate Carey Price
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• William Douglas profiles the hockey journey of Joonas Oden in the latest edition of Douglas’ “Color of Hockey” series. Could Oden’s journey include playing with the Seattle expansion franchise? (NHL.com)

Connor McDavid recently turned 23, so Frank Seravalli put him in elite company. (TSN)

• NJ.com’s Steve Politi argues that Devils co-owner Josh Harris needs to “look in the mirror” when pondering the team’s problems. (NJ.com)

• Speaking of the Devils, there’s early evidence that they’ve improved during third periods after replacing John Hynes with Alain Nasreddine. (All About The Jersey)

• Sean “Down Goes Brown” McIndoe takes Erik Karlsson and other players to “contract court.” (The Athletic [sub required])

• Blackhawks fans should relax about the team’s negotiations with Robin Lehner. My take: he’s been fantastic, again … but what kind of package would a contender send to Chicago to land such a talented goalie? If Chicago isn’t asking that type of question, even if they prefer an extension, then I would be worried. (The Rink)

• On the subject of pending free agent goalies, Jimmy Howard‘s really struggling. With Jonathan Bernier injured, the Red Wings might lean on him even more. Doesn’t seem like an ideal situation, folks. Maybe they should put him in situations to succeed so (wait for it) they can trade him to a contender? Just saying, part II. (Detroit Free-Press)

• More goalie talk: Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin continue to dominate for the Stars. Can they keep it up? My feeling parallels that of the Islanders: if not, they should at least be commended for doing it for 1.5 seasons. Pretty tough to maintain such dominance in an unforgiving NHL. (Dallas Morning News)

• Brodie Brazil dares to wonder if the Sharks might be turning it around. (Goaltending ranks among his three reasons.) I dare to wonder if it’s already too late. (NBC Sports California)

• Andrew Berkshire breaks down what broke down for the Canadiens in 2019-20. (Sportsnet)

• The Blues Jackets keep defying those who assume they’re down for the count. (Jackets Cannon)

• Capitals fans vote on the team’s best jersey design. Allow an opinion: the general rule is: less bird, the better. (Nova Caps)

• More jersey design banter: Hockey By Design ranks the Maple Leafs sweaters from worst to first. (Hockey By Design)

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.

NHL Power Rankings: 2020 trade deadline candidates

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we look ahead to the trade deadline and some of the players who could be on the move.

We have split the rankings into four different tiers focusing on the likelihood of a trade.

The first three tiers focus on players that are most likely to be traded for one reason or another (expiring contract, playing on rebuilding teams, requested a trade, etc.).

The fourth tier looks at players that could make a big impact and bring big returns, but aren’t anywhere near as likely to be traded.

To the rankings!

Tier 1: Players almost certain to be traded

1. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators. This is a no-brainer for the Senators. With Taylor Hall already moved to Arizona, Pageau is the top rental available and there are going to be a number of teams lining up to acquire him in the hopes he can be their missing piece. Even as a rental his value in a trade will probably be worth more than his long-term value to a rebuilding Senators team that is still years away from contention.

2. Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings. He may not be a star, but I want to see what he can do on a better team with more talent around him. The Kings need to start turning the page on this core and Toffoli — a pending unrestricted free agent — is a good place to start.

3. Chris Kreider, New York Rangers. There is always the possibility that the Rangers could try to re-sign him, but you have to think if that was going to happen it would have already been done by now. He would be a great addition for a Colorado team that is all-in on winning right now. He would also be an intriguing replacement for Jake Guentzel on Sidney Crosby‘s wing in Pittsburgh, provided the two teams were willing to trade within the division.

4. Alex Galchenyuk, Pittsburgh Penguins. His value is at an all-time low, but there does not seem to be any chance he remains with the Penguins beyond the trade deadline. GM Jim Rutherford is quick to move on from mistakes or acquisitions that do not work, and this would qualify.

Tier 2: Expiring contracts that could/should be be traded

5. Brenden Dillon, San Jose Sharks. Even with their improved play as of late the Sharks are going to need a massive turnaround in the second half to make the playoffs. The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the Sharks are going to look to reset at the deadline, and that could mean a Dillon trade. As far as blue line rentals go he would be an intriguing option. He won’t put up a lot of points, but he makes a big impact defensively.

6. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks. Both of the Blackhawks’ goalies are free agents after this season, and Lehner doesn’t seem willing to take a below market contract again to stay in Chicago. Not keeping him creates another hole on a team that has too many to begin win. But can they re-sign him?

7. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks. He is not going to come close to matching his offensive output from a year ago, but he could be a good depth addition for a team that needs a little more scoring punch from its blue line.

8. Sami Vatanen, New Jersey Devils. Ray Shero’s firing kind of throws a wrench into the things for the Devils, but given their spot in the standings and the expiring contracts they have you have to think they are going to be sellers. Vatanen might have the most value out of that group.

9. Wayne Simmonds, New Jersey Devils. He was a good low-risk signing for the Devils, but he hasn’t quite bounced back as either side hoped. His pending free agency makes him a potential rental, but there may not be a lot left here.

10. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. One of the many veterans in Ottawa playing on an expiring contract. He is not the goalie he was during his prime years, but he could be a solid backup addition for a contender.

11. Mikael Granlund, Nashville Predators. Granlund was an outstanding player in Minnesota, but things simply have not worked for him in Nashville. If the Predators do not play their way back into a playoff position they could become sellers, and Granlund’s expiring contract might be at the top of the list.

12. Zach Bogosian, Buffalo Sabres. Bogosian already requested a trade earlier this season and the Sabres have dropped like a rock in the standings. It is probably a matter of when and not if he moves. Do not expect a significant return when he does.

Tier 3: The change of scenery candidates

13. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. Should they trade him? No. But they are currently carrying three goalies and seem to love Igor Shesterkin. The ideal situation is to simply keep both Shesterkin and Georgiev — two very good young goalies! — and see who emerges long-term. And if they both do? Even better! He will have more value to them that way than he will in a trade.

14. Kyle Turris, Nashville Predators. Maybe things change with John Hynes behind the bench, but Turris hasn’t worked out in Nashville and he still has a ton of money left on his contract.

15. Josh Ho-Sang, New York Islanders. Just because it has to happen at some point, right?

16. Lias Andersson, New York Rangers. He has requested a trade and a fresh start somewhere else would probably be in everybody’s best interest.

17. Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers. He can not play in the NHL this season but he has zero future with the Oilers and needs a fresh start somewhere else.

Tier 4: Really players that could make huge impacts, but probably won’t move

(Several of these players are the best players on the list and would make the biggest impact, but they are also far less likely to actually be traded this season than the players above)

18. Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild. Former general manager Paul Fenton seemed determined to trade him but was never able to get it done. He is an outstanding two-way player that would bring a big return given that he still has a year remaining on his contract, but it would also be a pretty big white flag from the organization if the Wild move him.

19. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks. He doesn’t seem likely to be traded, but the Blackhawks would be wise to at least listen to offers. He is a good two-way player and has performed in big spots in the past. A contender would love to have him.

20. Alec Martinez, Los Angeles Kings. Out of all the potential trade candidates on the Kings’ roster Martinez might bring the biggest return given his position, ability, and contract (one full year remaining after this one at a fair price). Trading him would actually require a commitment to a rebuild, however.

21. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. It is going to be fascinating to see what the Canadiens do at the deadline. They lack quality scoring depth so trading one of their most productive players would be a step backwards, but this team is going nowhere fast as currently constructed and might need to change course.

22. Kyle Palmieri New Jersey Devils. Trading him would be a pretty drastic move for the Devils, but all options should be on the table. He is an excellent player with another year remaining on his contract at a good price. His value would be high.

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.

Blackhawks have some big goaltending questions to answer

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Robin Lehner was one of the many offseason additions for the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, and probably the only one that has actually worked as expected.

After helping guide the New York Islanders to a surprising playoff berth a year ago, a performance that saw him finish the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, Lehner signed a bargain one-year, $5 million contract with a Blackhawks team that was still trying to squeeze something out of its aging championship core.

Halfway through the season Lehner has been everything the Blackhawks could have hoped for him to be and has been one of the few bright spots for a team that still can’t stop anybody defensively.

He enter’s Saturday’s game with a .922 save percentage and is one of the biggest reasons the team is still reasonably competitive given the state of its defense. Along with his individual numbers, the Blackhawks have a .608 points percentage when he starts (99-point pace over 82 games) and a .363 mark when he doesn’t.

He is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, which could cause some headaches for the Blackhawks.

1. Lehner wants his fair value

Lehner talked about his contract situation a little on Friday (via NHL.com), and while he made it very clear he would like to return to Chicago, he also made it clear he would like to get what he considers to be fair value on his next contract. He also wants a long-term home instead of signing another one-year deal.

His play the past two seasons makes it clear he has earned both.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season his .927 all situations save percentage is second in the NHL behind only Dallas’ Ben Bishop. His .930 mark at even-strength is fifth best. The only season out of the past five where he didn’t produce like a No. 1 goalie was the 2017-18 season in Buffalo when he played behind a Sabres team that was one of the league’s worst. By every objective measure he is a top-shelf goalie and at age 28 should still have some strong seasons ahead of him.

Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is their other goalie, Corey Crawford, is also playing out the final year of his contract.

2. Lehner should be the Blackhawks’ priority

For as great as Crawford has been for the Blackhawks, helping the team win two Stanley Cups, it is pretty clear that Lehner is the best option at the moment has to be the priority if winning is still the priority.

He has not only outperformed Crawford this season (and has for two years now), he is also seven years younger.

Bowman has always been extremely loyal to players he has won with (even re-acquiring several that won in Chicago after losing them in cap-related transactions), but that has also played a role in the team’s rapid decline into mediocrity the past three years.

At some point you have to turn the page, and for as much as Crawford has meant to the Blackhawks, if it comes down to an either/or situation the only sensible choice is Lehner. He is also probably the best option that will be available to them this summer.

Washington’s Braden Holtby is the other big-name goalie that could be available, but he seems to be a shell of his former Vezina Trophy self, while the early returns on Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida should make every team wary of giving out a massive contract to a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie.

None of the other potential free agents (Jacob Markstrom, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson) can match up with Lehner.

He is the best option no matter where you look.

3. The other factors

And by other, we mean everything from the salary cap ramifications, to what exactly the short-term direction is for the Blackhawks and where Lehner might fit in.

Bowman added a ton of future money to the organization this past summer, and when combined with the mega-contracts that belong to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of the lineup the salary cap is always going to be an issue. They could get some relief if they move Brandon Saad or another veteran or two.

But even if they do, is there enough space to fit in a long-term deal for Lehner and still make the necessary additions around him to make the team better?

Barring a drastic second-half turnaround, the Blackhawks are on the verge of a third consecutive non-playoff season and still have holes all over the lineup. The defense is again one of the worst in the league, the forward depth is lacking after Kane, while he, Toews, and Duncan Keith are going to be another year into their 30s next season.

The Blackhawks tried to stay in “win-now” mode this past summer and hoped a few tweaks could fix it. That has not been the case.

Even if they find a way to keep Lehner, they still have a lot of problems to fix to make the team competitive.

If he goes, it simply adds another problem and takes away one of the few remaining strengths the team still has.

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.