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Red Wings keep sending mixed signals about rebuild

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Every time I start to feel some doubt about questioning if the Detroit Red Wings are truly committed to rebuilding, something silly surfaces.

Wednesday provided the latest head-scratcher, as MLive.com’s Ansar Khan reports that the Red Wings are “committed” to keeping Jimmy Howard, and are likely to hand the 34-year-old goalie a multiyear extension.

Considering the circumstances, such a decision would be downright baffling.

Old goalies, and the same old mistakes?

Again, Howard is 34. Goalies might age better than, say, snipers, but even that might be changing, as the NHL gets speedier every year.

My guess is that Howard would receive a lower AAV than his current $5.29 million cap hit in an extension, yet I’d also wager that he’d be be paid far more handsomely with a proactive extension – with a team that sure seems more smitten with him than virtually any other front office in the league – than what he’d get on the free agent market.

The Red Wings would essentially be negotiating against themselves here.

If such a move came to fruition, it could be a prime example of a team falling too deeply in love with their own players, and Detroit is in this mess, in part, because GM Ken Holland’s had his blinders on when it comes to overpaying supporting cast members like Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm.

Worse yet, the Red Wings already made a fairly bloated investment in an aging, fine-but-unspectacular goalie in signing 30-year-old Jonathan Bernier to a three-year contract at $3M per year.

Khan writes that “the Red Wings see no point in searching for a better alternative in July’s thin free-agent market,” which is confounding for a number of reasons. To start, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun recently noted there could end up being some rather interesting choices. As we’ve seen in cases like Robin Lehner so far providing a .928 save percentage at a $1.5M clip for the Islanders, teams can find serious bargains in reclamation projects (and, again, even Howard could possibly be much cheaper if he endures an average season). If nothing else, Detroit might be able to take a swing at a younger option.

What’s there really to lose if the Red Wings end up losing? Logically speaking, they’d likely benefit from tanking for a bit, so why spend what would likely be serious cash on creaky combination of Bernier and Howard?

Well, the more you wonder, the tougher it is to shake the impression that the Red Wings are either in denial of this truly being a rebuild, or refuse to believe that this process will take very long.

Holland & Co. really need to be objective and ask: what’s the ceiling for this situation?

Perhaps there are too many feelings involved here, which would only strengthen arguments that it might be about time for Holland to step aside as GM. If there’s any truth to rumblings about Steve Yzerman being the heir apparent, why saddle him with more risky contracts for older players?

I mean, unless Holland is actively trolling Stevie Y …

Howard’s value

Howard is a fine goalie, yet he’s far from irreplaceable.

The aging netminder’s save percentage is .917 this season, slightly up from his middle-of-the-pack save percentage of .915. That mark ties Howard for 23rd in the NHL among goalies who’ve played in at least three games this season. Not exactly “we can’t let this guy go” material.

This post isn’t meant to deny that Howard has value. Plenty of NHL teams could use a steady, experienced goalie, even if it’s fair to wonder how frequently Howard can flirt with elite play.

The Red Wings should take advantage of other teams’ goalie worries to net a nice return for Howard. It’s easy to picture the Flames, Kings, and other teams paying a decent ransom for Howard, especially if Detroit offered to take a short-term cap headache back to make the money work and receive even better future assets. Basically, there’s at least some room for Holland to make Howard the next Tomas Tatar: a perfectly suitable but contextually expendable player who could be moved for – hopefully – a strong return.

Even if a trade isn’t possible, let’s not forget that there have been multiple stretches where Red Wings fans and hot stove enthusiasts wondered if there was any way that the Red Wings could get out of what once seemed like an interminable Howard contract.

Now that they’re mere months of being liberated from that problem deal, they want to invest once again? The Red Wings must be snoozing through recent history classes.

***

To be clear, Howard’s an OK goalie. Sometimes he’s excellent; sometimes he struggles. It’s fine if you like him more than the average No. 1 guy. But, really, it would be pretty tough to make an emphatic argument that he truly moves the needle, especially since Howard isn’t getting any younger.

Keeping Howard around seems like the safe move. He’s familiar. The Red Wings don’t love the idea of bottoming out.

If they’re being honest, the Red Wings would admit that the risks far outweigh the rewards here. They also need to look in the mirror and realize that a rebuild is very much happening, and it will only drag on longer if they don’t embrace reality.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

How Islanders have jumped to top of Metropolitan Division

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After they lost John Tavares in free agency, the New York Islanders kind of became an afterthought ahead of the 2018-19 season. No one expected them to be competitive this season. No one. The season is still young, but the fact that they’re in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division is remarkable, but how have they been able to pull this off?

First, the impact their goaltenders have had on the team can’t be ignored. Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have exceeded expectations in every way. The goalies are a big reason why the Islanders have been able to rattle off five wins in a row over division rivals like the Penguins (twice), the Flyers, the ‘Canes and Devils. Greiss has accumulated three of the five victories, while Lehner has been between the pipes for two of them. Neither one of them has allowed more than two goals in any of the last five games. That’s terrific.

Can both guys keep this up? Can the Islanders keep this going? Last week, PHT’s Adam Gretz broke down whether or not you should buy the Islanders’ fast start.

The other reason they’ve had so much success is because of the amount of balanced scoring they’ve received. Over the last five contests, Brock Nelson (four goals) Anders Lee (three), Jordan Eberle (three), Josh Bailey, Ryan Pulock, Andrew Ladd, Anthony Beauvillier, Tom Kuhnhackl, Leo Komarov, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech and Matt Martin all found the back of the net. That’s 12 different scorers over five games. That’s really impressive.

“I have the same mindset as the team right now,” Bailey said, per NHL.com. “I just turn the page after each game and get ready for the next one. When you get on these streaks as a team, and individually, you want to ride them for as long as you can but it’s about staying [on an] even keel, not thinking too much about it and preparing the same way you do every game.”

They’ve done all of this with a struggling Mathew Barzal. Not only has Barzal not picked up a goal in 11 consecutive games, he’s also been held point-less in three of the five games during this current winning streak.

Whether or not this group of players is good enough to keep this up remains to be seen. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to their upcoming schedule, as they’ll play tough games against the Canadiens and Lightning this week, before closing out their quick two-game Florida trip with a game against the Panthers on Saturday night.

“When you get the results you’re looking for it adds to that confidence, and I think our staff does a great job preparing us,” added Bailey. “I think there’s a belief within our group that we can win every night, and we take the same approach every game. We’ll turn the page after this one and get ready for the next one.”

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Isles goalies answering questions; dependable Raanta

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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.

• Fantasy Hockey GMs looking for advice should check out Rotoworld’s “Waiver Wired” column. Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch is worth adding off the wire.  (Rotoworld)

• Coming into this season, there were plenty of question marks surrounding the Islanders goalies. But so far, Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have been solid. (Newsday)

• Which jersey do NHLers around the league think is the best one? No surprise here. (NHL.com)

• NBC Sports Philly explains why Bobby Clarke is the greatest Philadelphia Flyer of all time. (NBC Sports Philly)

• The Anaheim Ducks are glad that they’ve made some progress recently, but the results still haven’t been there for them. (OC Register)

• With Auston Matthews sidelined by a shoulder injury, Mitch Marner has stepped up in a big way. (Toronto Star)

Antti Raanta spent several years as a backup goalie, but he’s turning into a dependable starting goaltender in Arizona right now. (NHL.com)

Jason Pominville celebrated his 1,000th NHL game in style over the weekend, and he was extremely grateful that his family could be there with him. “It’s tough not to get choked up when you see the kids, see them on the ice,” Pominville said. “Even during the game. It was kind of fortunate we had a lead. I was able to look up and hear most of them. Just a lot of people that have meant a lot to me throughout my career. A lot of great players, and great memories with them. It was pretty emotional at times.” (Buffalo News)

• The Calgary Flames have quite a few Swedes on their roster, so that group, which includes Mikael Backlund, Elias Lindholm and Rasmus Andersson, can speak in multiple languages on the ice. (Calgary Sun)

• After years of on-ice frustration, Yanni Gourde was finally rewarded with a huge contract extension. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Sometimes, teams spend a ton of money in free agency only to have those signings fail. Other times, teams make low-risk signings that work out beautifully. The Hockey News looks at five summer acquisitions that have made a surprisingly positive impact on their teams. (The Hockey News)

• Did Wayne Gretzky really end up playing for the Edmonton Oilers because of a high stakes game of backgammon? This is a wild story. (Sportsnet)

• The Ottawa Senators played their 2,000th game in the NHL, and Randy Sexton has so many memories since the team joined the league. The Sens have come a long way. (Ottawa Sun)

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.

The Buzzer: Saturday night’s alright for shutouts

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Three Stars

1. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

How often does this happen? You wake up on your birthday, sign a big-money extension and then go out and put up 26 save shutout against the Boston Bruins. If you answered never, you’d actually be wrong. Apparently, this is something Rinne does for fun. Yes, Rinne woke up, signed a two-year, $10 million extension and then went out and took care of business on the ice just hours later on Saturday. Rinne is now 5-1-0 this season and is making an early case for a second straight Vezina Trophy with his shiny .948 save percentage. Happy Birthday, indeed.

2. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

One of the reasons for the Islanders’ success this season has been the performances they’ve seen from their goalies. New York entered Saturday with the third-best team save percentage and only improved on that as the day ended. Greiss made 35 saves for his first shutout of the season, improving his record to 4-2-0 with a 1.85 goals-against-average and a .944 save percentage. The Islanders are now 8-4-1 without John Tavares and haven’t skipped a beat with Robin Lehner nursing a back strain, winning five straight.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

Sticking with shutouts, Andersen posted a 31-save effort himself against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Maple Leafs came into the game 0-2 without Auston Matthews, who is out long-term with a shoulder injury. The Leafs hadn’t given their goalies run support in those previous two outings with a single goal in each of them. A lack of scoring wasn’t an issue on Saturday, however, as Toronto put up a five-spot on the Penguins. Andersen was a big factor in the win, stopping all five shots on the penalty kill as Pittsburgh went 0-for-5.

Bonus star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

The fourth and final shutout of Saturday night belonged to Fleury, who made 34 saves to become the 29th player in NHL history to hit 50 clean sheets. Fleury’s second shutout of the season came against the team that puts up more shots per game than any other. Fleury also helped the Golden Knights end a two-game skid.

Other notable performances:

  • Jason Pominville and Jeff Skinner went full beast mode in the Buffalo Sabres 9-2 thumping of the Ottawa Senators. Both Pominville and Skinner each scored twice and added assists.
  • Kyle Brodziak had two goals, including the game-winner, as the Edmonton Oilers won their eighth game of the season.
  • Jaroslav Halak didn’t get an ounce of support as he stopped 39-of-40 shots in a 1-0 loss to the Predators.
  • Morgan Rielly scored twice to put him on six goals for the season, the same number he had in 76 games last season. His career-high is nine.
  • Sean Monahan had two goals and Elias Lindholm added three assists as the Flames came from behind to win 5-3 against the Blackhawks.
  • Dustin Brown had two goals (one shorthanded) and an assist for the Kings against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Anze Kopitar also scored shorthanded in the game. Torts won’t be happy.
  • It was “Timo Time in Overtime” according to the play-by-play man Randy Hahn on NBC Sports California on Saturday. Meier scored his second of the game 13 seconds into overtime to seal the win for San Jose.

Highlights of the Night

Koskinen is huge. This save is also huge.

Dangles, dekes and game winners.

What a shot:

Ever watched Brad Marchand act?

Factoids

Scores

Sabres 9, Senators 2

Stars 4, Capitals 3 (OT)

Oilers 4, Red Wings 3

Islanders 3, Devils 0

Lightning 4, Canadiens 1

Maple Leafs 5, Penguins 0

Wild 5, Blues 1

Predators 1, Bruins 0

Golden Knights 3, Hurricanes 0

Flames 5, Blackhawks 3

Sharks 4, Flyers 3 (OT)

Kings 4, Blue Jackets 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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