Unlikely Selke candidate emerges in Montreal

1 Comment

When the Montreal Canadiens traded Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016, no one believed that they had acquired a potential Selke Trophy candidate. But through 48 games this season, Phillip Danault has shown that he has what it takes to be in the conversation for the NHL’s top two-way forward.

Over the last few years, the Canadiens have been thin down the middle. Danault has had to play on the team’s top line for a while, but no one ever expected him to be a go-to center. Most people still see him as a quality third-liner.

The 25-year-old has spent most of the season on a line with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher. Those three have consistently gone up against every opponent’s best line. The minutes have been difficult, but those three have done a tremendous job of locking things down.

Danault opened the season with just two goals in his first 35 games, but he’s taken off since December. In his last 17 contests, the Habs forward has picked up 17 points. He’s now up to eight goals and 32 points in 48 games, which puts him on pace 55 points this season.

But let’s take a look at some of the advanced numbers that show us just how good he’s been in 2018-19.

He and his linemates are all in the top 50 when it comes to Corsi For Percentage. His 57.24 percent ranks 43rd in the NHL. The fact that the Canadiens control nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts when he’s on the ice is impressive. Keep in mind, he’s on the ice going up against Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov and so many other top players. That’s remarkable.

Also, when he’s on the ice, the Habs score nearly 60 percent of the goals that occur. Again, impressive. How about high-danger CF%? With Danault on, his team controls 57 percent of the high-danger chances that occur on the ice. He’s also the top faceoff guy on the team, at 53 percent.

“Phillip is playing some very good hockey. We rely on him a lot and we give him a lot of responsibility,” said head coach Claude Julien, per the Canadiens’ website. “He’s headed in the right direction. He’s often taking important faceoffs late in the game. He’s an extremely useful player.”

Over the last seven seasons, only three different players have won the Selke Trophy. Patrice Bergeron has won four times, Anze Kopitar has won it twice, and Jonathan Toews did it once. Bergeron is having a better offensive season than Danault, but he’s also missed 16 games so far. Kopitar and the Kings are totally off the grid this year and Toews is in a similar spot.

If Danault can continue to chip in offensively, while taking care of business defensively, he could find himself in the conversation for a nomination. Of course, he’s no slam dunk, but he’s been good enough to get himself on the radar, which is tough to do for this award, because voters usually hand it out on a reputation basis.

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.

An appreciation of the underappreciated Rick Nash

1 Comment

Rick Nash announced his retirement from the NHL on Friday, officially ending a 15-year career that was far better than it was ever given credit for being while it was happening.

He is a perfect example of how team success drives the narrative around an individual player, and just how difficult, if not impossible, it can be for one player to alter the path of an entire organization — especially in a sport like hockey where one player can never carry an entire team on their own.

When you look at what he actually did in the NHL, he was outstanding. He was one of the best goal-scorers of his generation and a constant force when he was on the ice. He could drive possession, he became one of the league’s most dangerous and effective penalty killers, and he had immense skill that produced some breathtaking plays with the puck, such as this goal that happened nearly 11 years to the day.

Still, his entire career seemed to be dogged by criticism for what he didn’t do, as opposed to what he was doing.

And what he was doing was scoring a hell of a lot of goals and at a level that few other players during his era ever reached.

He spent the first nine years of his career (and his best years in the NHL) stuck on a fledgling Columbus team that could barely get out of its own way and seemed completely incapable of building anything around him.

[Related: Concussion issues force Nash to retire from NHL]

Anytime a player is taken No. 1 overall (as Nash was in 2002) there is always going to be an expectation that they are going to be the turning point to help lead a franchise stuck at the bottom of the league out of the darkness they are in.

In the NBA, one superstar can do that because of how much they play and how much of an impact one player can make due to the size of the rosters and how much the best players handle the ball.

In the NFL, a quarterback can do that because of the importance of the position and the impact it has on every game.

But in the NHL the best players only play, at most, a third of the game. When they are on the ice the puck is probably on their stick for about a minute of actual game time … if that. That is not enough time to carry an entire team.

Not even a player like Connor McDavid is capable of lifting a team on his own.

Just consider what Nash did during his time in Columbus.

During his nine years there he scored 289 goals, a number that put him among the top-eight players in the entire NHL. That’s an average of more than 32 goals per season, and the only two years where he didn’t score at least 30 were his rookie season and the 2006-07 season when he scored 27 in 75 games.

He won a goal-scoring crown in his second year in the league at the age of 19. Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk (nine each) were the only players to have more 30-goal seasons during that stretch. In the end he did what was expected of him. The problem is that during those nine years there was nobody else on his team that was anywhere close to him, or anything close to being an impact player.

Only one other player in a Blue Jackets uniform scored more than 90 goals (R.J. Umberger scored 94) during that stretch, and only other other (David Vyborny) scored more than 80. With all due respect to Umberger and Vyborny, both of whom were solid NHL players, if they are the second and third most productive goal-scorers on your team over an entire decade then things are probably not going to go well for your team.

There was never anybody else that could help carry the load offensively.

For his career, he ended up tallying 437 goals, a number that was topped by only three players during his years in the NHL (Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, and Patrick Marleau).

He was not only an outstanding player, he was one of the most underappreciated players of his era.

He was one of a handful of players from his era that were better than they were given credit for during their primes.

Among them…

Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — These two were the foundation of the San Jose Sharks organization for more than a decade and both put together Hall of Fame worthy careers. The thing is, they spent most of their time together being more of a punchline because the Sharks were never able to get over the hump in the playoffs. As the best players on the team, they were often the ones wearing the target for the criticism when things went wrong in the playoffs.

By now you have probably seen the stat that was circulating around last week regarding Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin having the same number of points from the start of the 2005-06 season when they both entered the league. It was impressive, and awesome, and a testament to their dominance in the league.

What stood out to me was the fact that Thornton was third on that list. Despite those years all coming in the second half of his career when he should have been, in theory, significantly slowing down. He never really did. He just kept dominating.

As for Marleau, well, just consider that he has scored 72 postseason goals in his career. No player in the NHL has scored more than him during the duration of his career. Even if you take into account that his career started way before many active players, he is still in the top-four since the start of the 2005-06 season.

Tomas Vokoun — In the 10 years he spent as a starting goaile between 2002-03 and 2012-13 there were only four goalies in the NHL that appeared in at least 200 games and had a higher career save percentage than him — Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne. Vokoun wasn’t just underappreciated, he was legitimately one of the best and most consistent goalies of his era. There is an argument to be made that Luongo also falls in this category, but he’s been around long enough and accomplished enough that I think the league has started to appreciate him for how good he has been. But Vokoun never really got the recognition, mostly because he spent the bulk of his career as a starter stuck on a bad Florida Panthers team. The only three times he had an opportunity to play in the playoffs, he was just as outstanding as he was during the regular season.

During the 2003-04 postseason in Nashville he recorded a .939 save percentage in a six-game first-round series loss to a heavily favored Detroit Red Wings team. During that series he allowed two goals or less in four of the six games … winning only two of them. In 2012-13, when he was a backup to Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, he took over early in the first-round of that postseason and helped backstop the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final with a .933 save percentage. That postseason run ended very similarly to his 2003 postseason by playing great for a team that could not give him any offensive support.

Patrik Elias — Elias’ career was fascinating because he spent the bulk of it playing in one of the worst eras ever for offense, on a team that was synonymous with defense, and yet … he was still one of the most productive players of his era. And everyone outside of New Jersey just kind of forgets that he existed. He played 1,200 games in the NHL, he topped 1,000 points, and he was a top-15 player in goals and total points during his career.

He is one of just 56 players in league history to have played in at least 1,200 games and record at least 1,000 points. Out of that group, 37 of them are already in the Hall of Fame and over the next decade there are probably quite a few more that will join them (Jaromir Jagr, Thornton, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Jarome Iginla).

Given all of that Elias had a borderline Hall of Fame career, especially when you factor in the fact he was a top player on two Stanley Cup winning teams, and he is mostly just kind of … forgotten.

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: Guentzel’s hat trick leads rally; Hurricanes go bowling

AP
1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pittsburgh Penguins trailed by three goals after one period on Friday night, and then stormed back for a 7-4 win to hand the Anaheim Ducks their 10th loss in a row. There were a lot of stars in the win for the Penguins (Sidney Crosby was dominant even if he only recorded one point, Tanner Pearson scored two goals, Evgeni Malkin had four points) but it was Jake Guentzel that played a huge role, recording his second hat trick of the season. He scored two goals early in the second period to help the Penguins tie the game, and then added an empty netter later in the game to help put it away. He is now just one goal away from matching his season total from a year ago (22 goals).

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Jeff Skinner was back in Carolina on Friday night as a visiting player for the first time (and he scored his 30th goal of the season) but it was Sebastian Aho that ended up stealing the show with a pair of goals in the Hurricanes’ 4-3 win. They were both kind of fluky goals that went in the net off of Sabres defenders, but the Hurricanes will take them as they try to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Aho is now up to 18 goals on the season and continues to be one of the Hurricanes’ best players.

3. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets. The Jets haven’t been playing their best lately, but they have still found a way to win three of their past four games thanks to their 4-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night. Blake Wheeler scored a goal and recorded his 49th assist, but Kyle Connor was the big contributor for the team with a three point night, scoring a goal and adding a pair of assists in the win. He is now up to 16 goals and 34 points on the season and remains one of the Jets’ most underrated players.

Highlights

The Carolina Hurricanes continued their season of fun victory celebrations by allowing team captain Justin Williams to go … bowling. Williams also scored a goal on the night.

Phil Kessel gets credit for the game-winning goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins and he absolutely refused to be denied.

How bad were the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night? John Gibson gave up six goals and was by far their best player. In the first period he was making saves like this.

Factoids

  • Jeff Skinner’s goal was his 30th of the season, and the fourth time he has scored 30 goals in his career. He is the first Sabres player to score at least 30 goals in a season since Jason Pominville did it during the 2011-12 season [Sabres PR]
  • Bryan Little recorded his 500th career point on Friday night and is the third player in the history of the franchise to record 500 points with it. [NHL PR]
  • No player in the NHL has ore points than Johnny Gaudreau‘s 38 since the start of December [Sportsnet Stats]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

Winnipeg Jets 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Calgary Flames 4, Florida Panthers 2

Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Anaheim Ducks 4

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.

NHL All-Star Game: Draisaitl, Landeskog, Letang, Skinner voted ‘Last Men In’

13 Comments

Jeff Skinner of the Buffalo Sabres, Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers have been added to the 2019 NHL All-Star rosters after fans elected them through the Last Men In vote.

Following the player announcement last week, the NHL left one spot open on each divisional roster for the new Last Men In competition. After a week of voting by fans, those four will be heading to All-Star Weekend in San Jose later this month.

According to the NHL, more than 11.5 million votes were cast over in the last week, including two million on Thursday, which was the final day of balloting.

Still to be announced is the new captain for the Metropolitan Division after Alex Ovechkin pulled out for more rest. And barring another injury replacement, the Montreal Canadiens will be the only team without a representative after Carey Price announced he would not be participating.

Here are the updated rosters:

Atlantic Division
F Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
F Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres (Last Men In vote)
F Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
F Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Captain)
F David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
F Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
F John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
D Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
D Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers
G Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning*
(*Injury replacement for Carey Price)

Metropolitan Division
F Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
F Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets
F Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
F Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
F Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
F Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
D Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins (Last Men In vote)
D John Carlson, Washington Capitals
D Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
G Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
G Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
(*Captain Alex Oveckin pulled out.)

Central Division
F Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
F Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche (Last Men In vote)
F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Captain)
F Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
F Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
F Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
F Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
D Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
D Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
G Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
G Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Pacific Division
F Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
F Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Captain)
F Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Last Men In vote)
F Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
F Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
D Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
D Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
D Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
G Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
G John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills 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).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

MacKinnon, Avs are frustrated; should they be worried?

3 Comments

In the late stages of the Avs’ 5-3 loss to the Flames on Wednesday, Nathan MacKinnon lost his cool in a way that felt strangely “on-brand” for one of the NHL’s goofiest superstars.

The elite forward who tends to be the comic foil for Sidney Crosby in Tim Hortons commercials was fuming at Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, with cameras seemingly catching him saying “do your job.” Captain Gabriel Landeskog felt the need to restrain MacKinnon, which provided a moment of comic relief, as MacKinnon briefly fell off the bench.

(I giggle every time I see it.)

Top line remains top-shelf

But that comical moment shouldn’t totally steal the show, as MacKinnon has every right to be frustrated.

Much is made of Connor McDavid seemingly being on an island on an often-incompetently run Oilers team (does his current look lean “disgruntled” or merely “hockey player disheveled?”), but don’t sleep on the situation brewing in Colorado.

When you realize that the Avalanche have only won one of their last nine games (1-6-2), you might assume that there’s not much jelly left in the “asking MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Landeskog to do everything, maybe hope for great goaltending” donut. That was my assumption.

That doesn’t really hold much water, though.

MacKinnon has seven points in four January games. He extended his point streak to eight games with a goal against the Flames, giving him 66 points in 44 games, tying him with Johnny Gaudreau for third in the NHL. Rantanen has even more, as his 68 points trails only Nikita Kucherov‘s ludcrious 71.

Nate is asserting himself in various ways, including firing an Alex Ovechkin-like 4.64 shots on goal per game. He leads all NHL players with a blistering 204 SOG, with Patrick Kane ranking a distant second at 177.

When you remember that MacKinnon’s contract is downright theft ($6.3 million cap hit through 2022-23, amazingly), can you really fault him for being frustrated?

Really, maybe Bednar could be “doing his job” by finding more support behind that top line and sneakily-deadly offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie.

As PHT discussed recently, it may not be the worst idea to experiment with ways to spread the wealth. Perhaps such mad science would be deemed “messing with a good thing,” yet while Bednar’s tried Landeskog on a lower line, MacKinnon and Rantanen remain attached at the hip.

There’s a lot to like about the speedy way the Avs play, but maybe some stones remain unturned?

Beyond that, the bigger question might be: is GM Joe Sakic the one who needs to start “doing his job” to get MacKinnon and Rantanen more help?

Some perspective on their struggles

You can essentially break down this season so far into four quadrants. They started off hot at 6-1-2, only to sink to 7-6-3. After that, there was another surge, pushing them to 17-7-5, and inspiring optimism about possibly even pushing for a division title. Now they’re merely hoping to hold onto a playoff spot at 20-16-8 (48 points in 44 games). They definitely have a shot at catching the Stars (50 points in 44 games, 23 regulation/overtime wins) for the third spot in the Central, yet they must at least eye upstarts for their current spot:

Taking a look at Puck on Net’s handy stats, the Avalanche have actually been a bit better possession-wise (middle of the pack, if not top third in the league) during their recent slump than they had been before (roughly bottom third).

The difference is that their goaltending has really plummeted. During the last month, Philipp Grubauer is 2-4-1 with a lousy .876 save percentage, and Semyon Varlamov has struggled even more (1-2-2, .867). On the bright side, it’s unlikely for Colorado’s goaltending to be that bad going forward, yet let’s be honest: the Avs’ defense isn’t threatening the likes of the Predators’ and Lightning’s corps for the title of deepest and best.

Do your job

So, should Sakic consider making investments around trade deadline time?

Via Cap Friendly, you can see that the Avalanche have all of their 2019 NHL Draft picks except their fourth-rounder. The Matt Duchene trade netted them what could be a luxurious first-rounder from Ottawa, and they also have the Senators’ third-rounder.

There’s a lucid argument that maybe Sakic simply views the Avalanche as what they likely are: a work in progress. Why give up futures if you don’t think you really have a chance?

That’s fine, but who knows how often you’ll get truly world-beating work from MacKinnon and Rantanen. Yes, they’re frighteningly young for opponents (MacKinnon’s still just 23, while Rantanen is somehow only 22), but they’re setting a high bar that any duo would struggle to clear.

There’s also some Marner/Matthews logic at play for the Avalanche. Rantanen’s in the last year of his rookie deal, so he won’t be cheap for much longer. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to take advantage of this final bargain year by rolling the dice a bit?

Imagine how scary an Avalanche team could be if they didn’t just have MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog, but also some scoring balance? That’s the sort of thing that could make their opponents’ jobs quite miserable.

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.