Ron Hainsey

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What Hurricanes should expect from Justin Williams

Now that Justin Williams is officially back with the Carolina Hurricanes the waiting game is on for when he makes his season debut. Coach Rod Brind’Amour isn’t putting a timeline on it and just wants to make sure the 38-year-old winger is up to speed.

Once that happens he has the potential to be a significant addition and make an already talented, deep Hurricanes roster even better.

Let’s take a look at what they can — and should — expect from him once he makes his debut.

Even at 38 Williams has not slowed down

If there is a concern with Williams at this point it has to be the fact that he is going to be one of the oldest players in the league, having just turned 38 back in October. There are only four other players in the league age 38 or older this season (Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Ron Hainsey).

The thing that should give the Hurricanes a lot of optimism about Williams’ ability to produce is the fact his game never really showed any sign of slowing down in recent seasons. Everything about his level of production has remained remarkably consistent.

Durability? He has that, having missed just three regular season games since the start of the 2011-12 season, and none during his two most recent seasons in Carolina.

Production? Still very much there. He has yet to shown any sign of dropping off, averaging 20 goals and 50 points with fairly strong shot rates in each of the past four seasons.

While it is inevitable that every player will slow down as they get deeper into their 30s, there are some decent comparable players to Williams that suggest he could still have another year of similar production.

Dating back to the start of the 2000-01 season, Williams is one of five forwards that averaged between 0.60 and 0.70 points per game between the ages of 34-37 (minimum 300 games during that stretch).

The others: Patrick Marleau, Andrew Brunnette, Luc Robitaille, and Keith Tkachuk. Marleau and Brunnette came back in their age 38 seasons and maintained a very similar level of production. Robitaille missed his age 38 season due to the 2004 lockout, and came back at 39 and scored 15 goals in 65 games. Tkachuk retired.

Great value beyond just offense

What makes Williams such a big addition is that his game is far more than just offense. It always has been. Williams is an ice-tilter. When he is on the ice you know the puck is going to be at a certain end of the ice and that his team is going to be in control.

He has consistently been one of the best possession players in the league, and even the past two years in Carolina had some of the best defensive metrics not only among Hurricanes forwards, but also the entire league.

There were 350 forwards that played at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey the past two full seasons. Williams ranked among the top-20 in shot attempt share, scoring chance share, and expected goals share (via Natural Stat Trick). Defense doesn’t slump, and the type of high hockey IQ that Williams has had throughout his career doesn’t go away. So even if his finishing ability and offensive production slides a little, he is still going to be able to provide a lot of value.

The Hurricanes get even deeper 

When the Hurricanes’ roster gets discussed a lot of the focus tends to fall on their blue line, and for good reason. They are loaded on defense with young, impact players that are some of the best in the league. But their forwards are nothing to sleep on, either.

That group is also better than it was a year ago, even before the addition of Williams.

Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are bonafide top-line stars. Andrei Svechnikov is turning into a superstar. They added strong depth players like Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula (an outstanding player when healthy) over the summer. Martin Necas is blossoming into good, young NHL player. They have good options on every line, and that doesn’t even include Nino Neiderreiter who can still be better than he has shown.

Now they just added a top-six caliber winger without giving up anything in return.

With Williams having a half season to rest and coming in fresh with no wear and tear, combined with his all-around play, he could be one of the most significant additions an Eastern Conference team makes before the trade deadline.

Related: Hurricanes sign Williams to 1-year contract

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.

 

Can surprisingly scrappy Senators find right competing-rebuilding balance?

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When you’re trying to rebuild an NHL team, winning isn’t the only thing. Sometimes it’s the thing you want to occasionally avoid.

Such a thought comes to mind with the surprisingly scrappy Senators, who’ve rattled off wins in four of five games (and eight of 12) to build a respectable 10-11-1 record. Their 10 regulation/OT wins rank ahead of the Maple Leafs and Lightning, both stuck at nine.

Strong Sens Surge

The Senators have enjoyed particularly great work from a red-hot Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a rising Brady Tkachuk, a sneakily effective Anders Nilsson, and hungry players looking to prove themselves, such as Anthony Duclair.

Ottawa can really hang its hat on just how challenging this red-hot stretch should be on paper, with eight of their last 11 games coming on the road.

It all brings up a fascinating-if-awkward question: how much success would be too much success? What are the best ways to find the right balance between not (at least overtly) sabotaging immediate results in the interest of taking bigger swings in the future?

Consider this a suggested blueprint for 2019-20.

Don’t be shameless about killing the fun

In a great piece for The Athletic (sub required), Hailey Salvian notes that Mark Borowiecki said that the Senators “are getting pretty fired up” about defying the odds, and that “it’s definitely fun.”

It brings to mind a key point: there’s an art to “tanking” while not torching the confidence and habits of the players you want to keep around for the better days. When you look at teams that have been stuck in agonizingly long rebuild cycles such as the Buffalo Sabres, you’ll note players like Ryan O'Reilly burning out at the constant losing, and sometimes getting shipped out of town right when Buffalo might have been more situated to restore his love of the game.

Ideally, the Senators will start to build a structure for the future, while also losing enough to bank some big lottery odds. Judging by head coach D.J. Smith’s comments to Salvian, it seems like the organization is taking a sober approach.

“This is a process,” Smith said. “For us, whether its three years, four years, however long it takes for these kids to develop … But that’s been the best part, we are finding ways to win with the young guys and they are getting minutes and they are getting better.

“My job is to make them better by the end of the year, and if we can win some games along the way, it’s great.”

Building up assets to sell at a high price

Along with developing young players, Ottawa should focus on pumping up the value of non-essential pieces for lucrative trade returns.

If you look at the Senators’ near-comical salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll notice a ton of players on expiring contracts, with these standing out the most:

  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau: It’s easy to see why the Senators would want to keep JGP around for the long haul, but if I were Senators GM Pierre Dorion, I’d try to maximize the return for a 27-year-old player who’s on a career-best hot streak, with an unsustainable 24.5 shooting percentage acting as a red flag for his impressive 13-goal, 17-point start through 22 games.

While Pageau’s $3.1M AAV will shrink even more for a cap-challenged contender around deadline time, Dorion should consider selling him at his peak value (right now) if a desperate team would be interested.

If there’s angst about letting Pageau go … well, Ottawa could bring him back in free agency next summer.

  • Craig Anderson: The cynical rebuilding thing to do would be to keep Anderson (not playing well) and Nilsson (playing very well) in a platoon situation to lose more games. There’s a different bonus that could happen here, though: if Anderson plays at least competently, a team might look at him as a decent insurance policy, even at 38. Especially if Ottawa retained some of his $4.75M AAV … which isn’t a guarantee with Eugene Melnyk writing the checks, but still.
  • Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ron Hainsey, etc.: The Senators have a wide variety of expiring contracts for different tastes, in some cases with unclear injury situations (Namestnikov is on IR). If Ottawa can get value from trading any of them — even Duclair — they probably should.

***

For those grimacing at the notion of the Senators not putting their full weight behind a playoff push, consider a point Salivan made in passing: Ottawa had 21 points in 22 games last season, too.

The Senators’ greatest focus should be on the future, but they don’t need to totally look beyond the present to do so. Finding the right balance could really help in the construction of this rebuild.

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.

Sabres’ Okposo out with fourth concussion in less than three years

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with his fourth concussion in a little more than 2 + years.

The Sabres provided the update in posting their weekly injury report Monday, two days after Okposo was hurt in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It happened with five minutes left in the second period when Okposo took the ice and accidently collided with Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey.

This marks the fourth consecutive season the 31-year-old player has been sidelined by a concussion. The most serious one happened when he missed the final two weeks of 2017-18 and spent nearly a week in a hospital after what he called a routine hit in practice.

Okposo missed three games in March 2018 after a concussion from a collision with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan. And he missed a week last February when punched in the face by New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo.

Okposo is a 13-year veteran in his fourth season in Buffalo. He has a goal and four assists in 19 games.

The Sabres also announced center Tage Thompson will be out three to five weeks with an upper body injury. He was hurt in a 4-1 loss at Chicago on Sunday and after being called up from the minors to replace Okposo.

Andrei Markov heads back to KHL on tryout deal

Veteran defender Andrei Markov has been hoping to make a return to the NHL after spending the past two seasons playing in the KHL, but it appears as if those plans will remain on hold.

The KHL announced on Thursday that Markov has signed a professional tryout contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Markov played for Kazan Ak-Bars the past two seasons, tallying seven goals and 47 points in 104 regular season games.

Markov, now 40, spent his entire 16-year career with the Montreal Canadiens and was hoping to make a return to the team this season but the feeling never seemed to be mutual.

“Two years ago, his contract was due, we made an offer,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin told Canada’s RDS back in September. “Efforts were made to sign it and he chose another direction that was KHL. It was two years ago. Since that time, things have changed. The player has aged. The organization has changed direction. We have a lot of young people growing up.”

Markov’s agent said back in August that five teams had checked in on Markov’s availability and that he was seeking a one-year deal.

He is 10 games shy of playing his 1,000th game in the NHL, something that would be a nice milestone for what has been an extremely productive career. When he was at his best and not limited by injury (he had terrible injury luck for a three-year run between 2009 and 2012) Markov was an outstanding player and big point producer from the Canadiens’ blue line. Even in his last NHL season he had 36 points and a 54 percent Corsi rating in 66 games as a 38-year-old. Not exactly a small accomplishment.

Unfortunately for Markov there did not seem to be much of a market this year (at least not yet) for a 40-year-old defender.

The only players in the NHL over the age of 38 this season are Zdeno Chara (42), Patrick Marleau (40), Joe Thornton (40), and Ron Hainsey (38). Chara and Hainsey are the only defenders.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but things could have been much worse considering their cap crunch — and also the rather obvious need for Nazem Kadri to get a change of scenery.

Ultimately, it’s still a step back to replace Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, etc. with Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, and so on. That doesn’t mean that the end result has to be a step backward, but it’s a minor stumble on paper.

Strengths: Yes, the Maple Leafs are paying top dollar for Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and now Mitch Marner. It just so happens that they’re more or less worth that money; fans of NHL teams have just become conditioned to see these types of guys making less than they should, thanks to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sidney Crosby.

With Morgan Rielly and now Barrie, the Maple Leafs have some pretty potent options as far defensive scoring goes, although things get sketchy once you reach beyond the best options.

Frederik Andersen is also one of the best goalies in the NHL, and can sometimes will the Maple Leafs into games when their defense is cratering and their offense is cold.

Weaknesses: If Andersen gets hurt or struggles, the Maple Leafs’ backup options sure seem pretty dicey. Such a thought might prompt the team to wear Andersen out even if he plays well and stays healthy.

Depth on defense is a bit of a challenge, too.

Frankly, it’s tough to ignore Mike Babcock as someone who might be holding the Maple Leafs back. It’s not always huge decisions, but the conservative leaning can be a death by a thousand cuts. Not giving Auston Matthews enough minutes. Falling in love with old-school defensemen who, frankly, aren’t very good. It all adds up to a Maple Leafs setup that sometimes doesn’t feel fully optimized. I’m not convinced Babcock is a “bad” coach, yet like a lot of others, he has some bad habits.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It’s usually not the best sign when you end a season needing a vote of confidence from your GM. Babcock came to Toronto with a big reputation and an even bigger contract, making it slightly awkward to fire him, but despite all of the personnel improvements the Maple Leafs have made, they still haven’t won a playoff series since 2003-04. Some of that comes down to facing tough opponents, including being tormented by the Boston Bruins, but patience is wearing thin. Put Babcock at a 9.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie.

Marner got his wish with a contract that carries close to an $11 million cap hit; now it’s time for him to silence his doubters by showing that he’s worth that asking price. Fair or not, any cold streak will be magnified.

Nylander’s near-$7M AAV looks a whole lot better months later, but that doesn’t mean that Maple Leafs fans have totally “forgiven” him for a bumpy 2018-19 season once he actually signed. His hair choices will also be fascinating to watch.

Barrie brings a lot of skill to the table, and should have plenty of motivation in a contract year. That said, he also has his warts on defense; Maple Leafs fans and media tend to fixate on such mistakes, and it remains to be seen if Barrie will finish 2019-20 with a high standing among hockey folk.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and another Round 1 exit won’t be acceptable. That might mean finally scaling the mountain that is the Boston Bruins. Even if Toronto draws someone like the Lightning or revamped Panthers, chances are it won’t be an easy challenge, yet people won’t be very interested in excuses — even good ones — if this season ends just like the last few.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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