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Predators should not trade Tolvanen, Fiala at deadline

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Note: The situation would change considerably if the Predators managed to keep a trade target like Artemi Panarin or Mark Stone. This post revolves around the dangers of paying a big price just to rent someone like them.

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Looking to the past has its obvious flaws (are any two situations truly alike?), yet the Nashville Predators should consider history before trading Eeli Tolvanen and/or Kevin Fiala. The result would preferably be to … uh, not trade either of them.

One can look to other recent trades as warnings, including the Edmonton Oilers selling low on Jordan Eberle, but the Predators’ longer history probably resonates best with GM David Poile and the fanbase.

Remember the Forsbergs

We probably don’t need to linger on that one, as I already feel the piercing glare of Capitals fans for beating that dead horse.

  • In February 2007, the Predators sent a first and third-round pick (plus Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent) to the Flyers for Peter Forsberg.

Forsberg actually put up some impressive numbers during his short stay with Nashville (15 points in 17 regular-season games, four in five playoff contests), but the Predators were bounced 4-1 by the Sharks in the first round of that postseason.

Potential fallout of trading Fiala

This was mentioned in a post about not trading Jonathan Huberdeau, but it might be a point that I bleat out until the trade deadline: GMs should institute their own rule about never trading away a talented player whose shooting percentage is below 10 percent during that season. (If it’s the summer, use the most recent season as your barometer.)

If the Predators need a more splash-of-cold-water example than Eberle, try Jeff Skinner. I pre-scolded the Hurricanes about trading Skinner when his value was artificially low in May (24 goals in 82 games on an 8.7 shooting percentage in 2017-18), they did it anyway before the season for a weak return, and now Skinner’s playing so well (34 goals in 56 games, 18.5 shooting percentage) that there are credible talks that he might earn $9 million per season on his next deal.

Fiala is just 22, and as the speedy 11th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, there’s plenty of pedigree there to expect bigger things. Guess what: Fiala’s shooting percentage is at just 7.3 percent this season, and his career average is a flat 10.

People are frustrated with the Predators second line, and so you hear people losing patience with Fiala. But those lost-patience deals are often the ones where teams lose big in trades. That might have happened with the Hurricanes and Skinner, and it likely happened when the Oilers traded Eberle after a tough playoff run.

Here’s the thing: a smart team might actually leverage this for future gains, and the Predators have shown some history of being wise in exactly that way.

When you look at the best contracts on the Predators’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll see some situations where context and luck helped Nashville get good deals, like with the trend-setting bargain for Juuse Saros and the flat-out lucky steal with Viktor Arvidsson, who somehow has 26 goals in just 36 games this season.

But then you’ll see examples of the Predators showing foresight and signing players before they blossomed.

Consider the deals the Predators landed for the likes of Forsberg, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm, and you’ll see a team that’s leveraged RFA advantages to lock up guys for term, in many cases before they’ve been identified as difference-makers. (In Ellis’ case, consider that his expiring $2.5M cap hit lasted for five seasons.)

Fiala’s struggles could serve as Nashville’s gain. If they could lock him up for a value contract, Fiala could deliver top-six forward production at an affordable price, which could be crucial when players like Josi need new deals (in Josi’s case, after 2019-20).

When you don’t know what you have

Not that long ago, people were wondering how the Predators stole Eeli Tolvanen with the 30th pick in 2017. It might feel like he’s taking forever to develop, yet it’s easy to forget that he’s just 19 years old.

The Filip Forsberg trade is the big, waving, red flag regarding Tolvanen.

While it’s true that landing Artemi Panarin would be worlds ahead of what the Capitals received in even their more optimistic projections with Erat in 2013, the point is that Washington clearly didn’t know what it had in Forsberg. If the Predators are being truly honest, they’d admit that they do not know what kind of player Tolvanen is yet.

On the lowish end, Tolvanen could be a depth player/specialist on a cheap entry-level contract. If he reached his ceiling, the Predators’ would get a cost-controlled player whose earnings would still be pretty limited. How many contenders wouldn’t love to have a potentially cheap difference-maker through 2020-21?

Sure, it stinks that Tolvanen’s only scored one goal and one assist in seven NHL games, but he also only averaged 12:46 time on ice. It would be better if he was tearing up the AHL right now, yet considering that he could have left for the KHL because of a special out-clause – but instead stayed – the Predators should reward him. And, by rewarding him, there’s a strong chance they’d reward themselves.

More palatable options

The Predators have other chess pieces to move around that trade deadline board.

If they feel like they must move a valuable future asset for Panarin, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Wayne Simmonds, or any number of other intriguing targets, then Dante Fabbro might be an easier loss to stomach.

(I’d personally still be reluctant, but sometimes you have to spend money to make money, or some other colloquialism.)

Fabbro’s a touch older than Tolvanen, and the Predators haven’t signed him to a rookie contract yet, at least slightly opening the door for another Jimmy Vesey situation. Fabbro could be valuable if the Predators decide they can’t afford Josi along with P.K. Subban, Ellis, and Ekholm, so it would be best to keep him, but that’s something to consider.

Nashville has its first-rounders intact, and while they shipped their second away at a hefty price for Brian Boyle, there are other picks to work with, such as two fourth-rounders in 2019. The Predators are unlikely to be bad enough to have good first-round picks anytime soon, so paying the price for first-rounders is a smarter risk.

Put it this way: even if they were to get Tolvanen 2.0 and Fiala II with subsequent picks, those prospects would still be behind those players in their development cycles. There’s something to be said for the time Tolvanen and Fiala have put in – stitled, stacco growth rhythms or not – particularly for a contending team.

It’s not always about if, but when

None of this is to say that the Predators can’t ever trade Kevin Fiala or Eeli Tolvanen, just that now might be the worst time to do it. Fiala’s a pending RFA, but a struggling one, so there’s a chance at getting a cheap deal for him. Tolvanen’s already cheap because of his rookie contract, and Nashville doesn’t truly know his ceiling or his realistic floor as an NHL player.

The Predators are in a spot where a calculated gamble is actually quite reasonable. They see a possible second-round rematch with the Winnipeg Jets looming, and on paper, they might need a serious boost to clear that hurdle.

But when you look at Poile’s trades, his best ones come when he’s timed things well (see: Erat/Forsberg, Subban/Shea Weber), yet like any GM, more desperate moves have been pretty dicey. Paying a first-round pick for Ryan Hartman or a second-rounder for Boyle won’t decimate Nashville’s future on an individual level, but those decisions begin to add up.

The risks that come with selling low on Fiala and Tolvanen likely wouldn’t exceed the rewards, especially since those players would likely need to be packaged with other high-value assets like a first-round pick. The Predators are better off leaving those two out of deals, even if it means settling for a medium fish rather than the biggest catch.

On the bright side, if the Predators throw caution to the wind and go big anyway, it should make things more exciting during the trade deadline, not to mention the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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.

Canadiens surprisingly exceeding expectations

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The Montreal Canadiens’ trade for Nate Thompson on Monday afternoon isn’t anything that is going to make the rest of the Eastern Conference sit up and take notice. It is not going to put the fear of God in the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs, or change the course of the playoffs and impact where the Stanley Cup ends up. It is a likely playoff team adding a role player to its lineup for a small price and trying to find any small upgrade it can. Nothing more, nothing less.

What’s important is what it says about the Canadiens as a team this season.

They are buyers and looking to add.

This is a surprising development because of where they were, or at least seemed to be, at the start of the season.

Consider the fact they had one of the worst records in the league a season ago that ended with a disastrous second-half collapse.

In the offseason, they traded two of the best offensive players (on what was a bad offensive team) in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk for a package of players that, at the time, didn’t seem to make them better. In exchange for Galchenyuk, they received Max Domi‘s whose development had badly stalled with the Arizona Coyotes and had produced only a fraction of what Galchenyuk had with the Canadiens. It looked like a clear downgrade.

In return for Pacioretty, one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years, they received Tomas Tatar, a historically solid performer that was coming off of a terrible postseason run with the Vegas Golden Knights, and a lot of potential in the future. Again, it didn’t seem to make them any better in the short-term.

Then on top of all of that there was the fact that their top defender, Shea Weber, was going to be sidelined for most of the first half of the season.

There was little reason for optimism, and I will admit to being extremely critical of the moves and the direction the team seemed to be going in, especially with how much money they have tied up in Weber and Price, both of whom are on the wrong side of 30. That should still be a long-term concern, but sometimes you’re wrong in the short-term.

For them to exceed expectations it was almost as if they would need Carey Price to do what he did during the 2014-15 season and single handedly carry the team and sweep all of the major postseason awards.

[Related: Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive]

Now more than 50 games into the season, and with all of the factors above working against them, the Canadiens have more than exceeded all preseason expectations and barring another late season collapse look to be a solid lock to return to the playoffs. And they’ve done it without Carey Price being … well … Carey Price. He’s been good overall, and he’s been great lately, but he hasn’t been consistently great from the start, and he even had a really tough start to the season where he was playing significantly below his normal career level.

Despite that, the Canadiens kept winning, which is a positive development for the short-term outlook of the franchise. Why? Because everything about this team right now is legitimately good. They are playing with an aggressiveness and a level of speed that has been lacking in Montreal for years. Their possession and scoring chances numbers are among the best in the NHL. Their 5-on-5 shot attempt share is the third-best in the league, while they are in the top-five in scoring chance share and top-10 in High-Danger scoring chances.

Weber has been great since returning to the lineup, Domi has become the player Arizona always thought he would be, while Tatar has returned to the form he showed in his pre-Vegas career. Along with those developments, Philip Danault has taken a massive step forward this season both offensively and defensively, and the arrival and rapid development of rookie and No. 3 overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks like it could fill a long-term hole at center.

It’s not easy for the Canadiens to slide under the radar in the NHL just because of the history, the legacy of the franchise, where they are located, and the mystique around them. In most seasons Claude Julien would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award given how well the team has played and how much better it has been than originally expected. But given the surprising success stories with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames the Canadiens have managed to do the impossible  and have a really good team that has gone relatively unnoticed in the NHL.

It might be time to start taking notice because not only are they really good and playing really well, their best player and biggest game-changer — Price — is starting to play like they expect him to. Those two developments working together could make them a fierce matchup for somebody early in the playoffs.

More: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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: Rask’s milestone; former ‘Canes lift Flames over Carolina

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Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. When you move to the No. 1 spot on an Original Six team’s all-time wins list with a shutout over the defending Stanley Cup champions you get the No. 1 star for the day. Read more about Tuukka Rask and the Bruins’ big day here.

2. Elias Lindholm, Noan Hanifin and Derek Ryan, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames continued to build on their incredible climb to the top of the Western Conference standings with a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday. It was a trio of former Hurricanes that were leading the way as Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan, and Noah Hanifin all scored goals in the win. Lindholm and Hanifin were traded to Calgary over the summer in the big Dougie Hamilton trade (Hamilton, for what it is worth, also scored against his former team on Sunday for the Hurricanes) and have played a big role in the Flames’ resurgence. Lindholm has had a career year and been one of the single biggest individual surprises in the league. All three of them get to share a star for their role in the win. Lindholm gets a special star for, well, taking a page out of the Hurricanes’ celebration book.

It is great when the Hurricanes do it, and this is great, too. The NHL needs more personality from its players. More celebrations!

3. Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens. He completed the Canadiens’ come-from-behind win with an outstanding end-to-end rush in overtime to score his 15th goal of the season. The Canadiens trailed by a goal heading into the third period and sent the game to overtime on a late tally from rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, setting the stage for Drouin’s goal. It is a big goal for Drouin not only because it helped the Canadiens win, but because they could use more production of him this season. Entering play on Sunday he had scored just three goals in his past 19 games but has started to show some signs of snapping out of it with five points, including a pair of goals, in his past eight games. The Canadiens are now 6-1-1 during that stretch following Sunday’s win.

Highlights of the Day

It did not result in a win, but the Carolina Hurricanes opened up the scoring on Sunday with a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play that was completed by Teuvo Teravainen.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, their Storm Surge celebrations may not be embraced by people like Brian Burke but they are definitely having an impact on the young hockey players in the city.

Some of Rask’s biggest saves on his big day for the Bruins.

Here is Jonathan Drouin’s overtime winner.

Factoids

  • Garnet Hathaway scored the Calgary Flames’ 16th shorthanded goal of the season on Sunday afternoon. That total leads the league, is the fourth most in franchise history, and is just seven away from tying the team record for a season. They have a real shot at matching it at this paceP. [NHL PR]
  • Shea Weber‘s goal for the Montreal Canadies on Sunday was the 197th of his career, moving him into a tie with Mark Howe for 22nd on the NHL’s all-time list for goals scored among defenders. [NHL PR]
  • Elias Lindholm’s goal extended his current point streak to 10 consecutive games. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 1, Washington Capitals 0

Calgary Flames 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Montreal Canadiens 4, Edmonton Oilers 3 (OT)

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.

Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive

Raise your hand if you expected the Montreal Canadiens to be sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division after 51 games this season. Anybody? I didn’t think so.

After finishing 28th in 2017-18, expectations for the Habs this year were fairly low. They traded away their two best scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, and they were without Shea Weber for the first two months of the season. So you can understand why no one thought they’d be in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The acquisitions of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar have really helped. Carey Price‘s performances in December and January have also propelled the Habs up the standings and career year’s from Jeff Petry, Phillip Danault and a few others haven’t hurt, either.

But one of the biggest reasons the Canadiens have had so much success, is because head coach Claude Julien has them playing faster than ever. They’re at their best when they’re aggressive on the puck and on the forecheck. Julien has admitted that this edition of the Canadiens isn’t the most talented or skilled, but when they work hard, they know they can go head-to-head against anybody.

“We’re a team that came into this season with the intention of changing the perception of our hockey club and what’s expected of us,” Julien told the Montreal Gazette after his team dropped an ugly home decision to the Boston Bruins in December. “And the only way we could do that was to go out and compete hard and that was the No. 1 thing we wanted to do and that’s the No. 1 thing I think people appreciated from our team. We’re a fun team to watch, we competed hard, and lately it’s just been on and off. We can’t think that all of a sudden we’re a skilled team and we can get away with just half efforts because this is too good of a league. With the parity, you’re not going to survive that way.”

And that consistently aggressive forecheck might not be easy to maintain, but they know that when they’re able to execute on that part of their game, they can force their opponents into making mistakes.

“We put a lot of pressure on teams and when you can close on a player, you force him to make decisions quickly,” Paul Byron said back in October, per the Gazette. “When you have the forwards we have — Max (Domi), myself, Artturi (Lehkonen) — pressuring the other teams it forces them to make mistakes and cough up pucks. We want to get on them fast. The more we can take time and space away from the them the more advantageous it is for us.”

Adding Luke Richardson to the coaching staff has also helped change the identity of the Canadiens. Richardson has found a way to get his group of defensemen into the rush to help create offense.

Here’s an example of Petry not being shy about handling the puck deep in the offensive zone:

The defense has also just played faster in the way they skate with the puck and move the puck, which has led to an increase in puck possession and quality scoring chances.

According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens are the fourth best possession team in the league behind San Jose, Carolina and Vegas. They’re also fifth in FF%, sixth in SF%, sixth in GF%, and sixth in SCF%. Those are impressive numbers considering they don’t have a superstar forward like a lot of the other teams around them in the standings. Julien has put his team in a position to succeed and he’s done it by using all five skaters on the ice.

Even though there isn’t one specific way to measure this, it’s become increasingly clear that they’ve found a way to shoot from more dangerous areas on the ice. Last season, the Canadiens outshot their opponents fairly regularly, but a lot of those pucks came from the perimeter, where you just won’t score often enough. Now, they aren’t shy about getting to the dirty areas to make life more difficult for the opposing goaltender.

If Julien’s team can continue to hold on to the puck as much as they do, while getting incredible goaltending from Price, the Habs will continue to have success.

Are they legitimate Stanley Cup contenders? No. But they’re way ahead of where many expected them to be at this point in their re-tool project.

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.

Who will win the six 2019 All-Star Skills events?

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The NHL announced the six events for the 2019 SAP NHL All-Star Skills (competition no longer) on Friday, noting that the winner of individual events will receive $25K. The event will air on NBCSN, with things slated to run at Friday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET.

Here’s a quick look at each event, with some speculation regarding who might win:

  • Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater

Last year, Connor McDavid became the first-ever repeat winner of fastest skater, but Dylan Larkin owns the best-ever time from 2016. Larkin isn’t slated to be at the ASG weekend (barring injuries?), but Mathew Barzal could conceivably push McDavid.

It would be cool for McDavid to threepeat, even if it would be way more fun if 97 was instead winning, you know, more actual hockey games.

  • Enterprise NHL Premier Passer

This event has been a “wild card” of sorts in the skills competitions past, right down to the particulars. Usually there are adorable mini-nets, and this year’s will include that too. Here are the three phases of competition, via the NHL:

(1) Breakout Pass, where each player is given 10 pucks to attempt to make a pass to three “players”; (2) Mini Nets, where each player must complete a pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets; and (3) Target Passing, where each player must complete successful passes to all targets that randomly light up every three seconds. 

It’s tough to say that anyone would really have the “inside track” on this event. Alex Pietrangelo won in 2018.

The randomness is part of the fun, though … especially when trying to hit a tiny net in tough situations also leads to frustrations.

The players might not love it, though.

  • Ticketmaster NHL Save Streak

In 2018, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 14 shootout attempts in a row, beating Pekka Rinne by one. Fleury and Rinne will get a chance in the 2019 version, while Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s sheer athleticism makes him a great bet to push the two veterans this time around. This shootout-related competition lends itself to some fun and absurd moments, so expect nothing less in 2019.

  • Gatorade NHL Puck Control

In the last edition of this event (which goes through three phases of puck control, with the “gate” portion providing particular zaniness), Johnny Gaudreau absolutely killed it. He figures to be tough to beat in this regard, although the NHL is brimming with talented puckhandlers, so who knows?

  • SAP NHL Hardest Shot

The savage simplicity of all those slap-shots has made the hardest shot one of the most entertaining portions of All-Star weekends for decades now. Reigning champion Alex Ovechkin is sitting this year out, so the field opens up.

Actually, quite a few of the go-to choices for hardest shot aren’t slated to be in the 2019 edition. Frequent threats Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber aren’t on the rosters, and Dustin Byufglien would otherwise present a possible threat. Maybe Brent Burns will take it in 2019 in front of a partisan crowd, even after he wasn’t rifling them like many expected last time?

  • Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting

Last year, Brock Boeser began his magical All-Star weekend by winning the accuracy challenge. It looks like Boeser won’t be around to defend that title (nor his 2018 ASG MVP), though.

This eye-friendly competition often comes down to who has the hot hand, but when you look at who’s shooting a high percentage despite heavy volume this year, some favorites emerge: Elias Pettersson (if healthy), Jeff Skinner, and Auston Matthews rank as just a few of the players who could shoot with the highest level of precision.

It would be pretty fun if the Vancouver Canucks saw one ray of hope (Pettersson) follow another (Boeser the year before) in All-Star Games, especially since Pettersson’s just been so much fun.

Who would you expect to win each competition, though? Which events do you look forward to the most?

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Looking back at the 2018 All-Star Skills

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.