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Stone’s arrival has given Golden Knights new top scoring line

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It has taken George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights front office less than two years to assemble a roster that looks like it is going to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

In year one they rode some stunning play from their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in what was one of the most improbable seasons (individually and on a team level) in league history.

For as good as that trio was, it was also inevitable that their production was going to regress significantly this season (and it has). They are still very good, but their regression, combined with the free agency departures of James Neal and David Perron, meant that the Golden Knights were going to have to make up for that drop in production elsewhere on the roster.

Enter their three big acquisitions from the past year of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and recent trade deadline addition Mark Stone.

Together that trio has formed what is supposed to be the Golden Knights’ second scoring line, but they have been so dominant as a group that we should probably be starting to look at them as their new top line.

In the nine games since the trade deadline the Golden Knights have put together an 8-1-0 record, with their only loss coming against the Calgary Flames in the second half of a back-to-back.

During that stretch the trio of Pacioretty, Stastny, and Stone has spent more than 116 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together as a line and been the biggest driving force behind their late season surge. In those 5-on-5 minutes they have outscored teams by a 6-3 margin, are controlling more than 65 percent of the total shot attempts and scoring chances that take place when they are on the ice, and more than 75 percent of the high-danger chances.

You would be hard pressed to find a better trio anywhere in the league since the end of February when taking their all around play into account.

From the moment they acquired Stastny and Pacioretty in the offseason it was expected they would be the foundation of a newly formed second line, and one that might have been even better than the one they put on the ice a year ago. But injuries to both Pacioretty and Stastny at various times put a dent in those plans, as well as the fact they were missing a stable third presence on their wing.

That is where Stone comes in.

Spending his entire career in Ottawa on what has mostly been a dysfunctional, mess of a team has made Stone one of the league’s most overlooked and underappreciated top-line scoring wingers. But he is a steady 60-point, possession driving player that has always made everyone around him better. That is an incredibly valuable asset in the NHL and is not the type of player that is always readily available.

When you have a chance to acquire one, you should be willing to jump at it. The Golden Knights did.

He is not only in the middle of what is a career year, but he has proven to be an ideal fit alongside Stastny and Pacioretty.

Just look at how their ability to drive possession and scoring chances has spiked since Stone’s arrival.

They are averaging more goals per 60 minutes (0.4 goals to be exact), allowing fewer goals per 60 minutes (2.96 down to 1.55), and have seen a drastic increase in their shot attempts, scoring chance, and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

McPhee paid a pretty substantial price to put this trio together, giving up two of the team’s top prospects (Nick Suzuki in the Pacioretty trade; Erik Brannstrom in the Stone trade) and several draft picks (not including the three draft picks he sent to Detroit to acquire Tomas Tatar, who was also sent to Montreal in the Pacioretty trade) and committed a significant amount of salary cap space to them. Immediately after acquiring Pacioretty he signed him to a four-year, $28 million contract extension, and followed a similar path with Stone by signing him to an eight-year, $76 million contract. Stastny is playing on a three-year, $19.5 million contract.

Given their ages and the long-term salary commitments there is a degree of risk there in future seasons because at some point all of them are going to decline before the end of their contracts. But as shocking as it still is to say, the Golden Knights’ championship window is pretty much wide open at this point, and whenever that is the case you owe it to yourself and your fans to go for it.

The Golden Knights did that by acquiring three of three of the most prominent scoring forwards that were available over the past eight months and assembled them into a new top line that seems to be sending their overall play in the right direction as the playoffs get close.

With the top line of Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith still in place, and Alex Tuch helping to carry the third line, there is reason to believe that this Golden Knights team might be even better than the one we saw in year one. That does not guarantee them anything come playoff time because their likely playoff path is going to be significantly tougher this season (and their goaltending has not been quite as consistent as it was a year ago), but they have to like their chances.

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.

Putrid power play might doom Canadiens’ playoff dreams

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Most times, when an NHL team is struggling, players will try to explain things away with buzzwords.

You’ll hear the sort of phrases that will get a lot of heads nodding – probably that of the head coach, in particular – which Andrew Shaw deployed in pondering the Montreal Canadiens’ struggles in trying to cement a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“We’ve had bad starts, we’ve had bad periods, we’ve had bad shifts,” Shaw said after Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Islanders, according to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “That hunger, that bite, it’s not there. It’s not where we need to be. We need to be a playoff team right now, and it looks like we’re just going out there and playing.”

Most signs point toward success

Talking about “that hunger, that bite” works, and probably gets some stomachs rumbling around dinner time. But effort (or a lack thereof) isn’t really a useful explanation for why the Canadiens have gone 6-9-0 in their last 15 games, placing them in what looks to be a really tight battle with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the East’s final playoff spot.

[More: The Push for the Playoffs details where the Habs rank.]

Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to look at numbers and tell the story of effort, but some of the telltale signs are there that Montreal’s still playing hard.

Since Feb. 9, Montreal’s been a high-end possession stat team by Natural Stat Trick’s metrics, just like they have overall the long haul of the season. While they “only” rank 11th since Feb. 9 at controlling the percentage of high-danger chances in a game, generating 52.05 percent is still very healthy.

What’s been going wrong, then?

If you’re wondering about goaltending, it’s not the biggest problem. Carey Price hasn’t been at his peak lately (.911 save percentage since Feb. 9), but he hasn’t been totally letting the Canadiens down.

The glaring problem

Instead, it’s pretty simple: Montreal’s power play has been abysmal.

During this slump, the Canadiens have gone 3-for-41 on the power play, which ends up being a putrid 7.3 percent success rate. That’s the worst mark in the NHL during that span since Feb. 9, with the Vancouver Canucks (8.3 percent) ranking as the only other team below double digits.

While Shaw can bring up elbow grease and sticktoitiveness, Claude Julien should be exploring answers to the power play question. To be specific, what’s been going wrong?

  • To some extent, this is just bad luck. Even the league’s most predictable, skill-low power plays should operate at much higher than 7.3 percent over the long haul.
  • That said, maybe there’s something systemic.

Personally, when I see that a team’s power play is ice cold, I usually check to see who’s shooting. Chances are, a power play might struggle because too many shots are coming from defensemen firing on low-quality opportunities.

That seems to be the case with Montreal, leading to a hypothesis: Shea Weber‘s booming shot is probably a curse disguised as a blessing.

During the 16 games since Feb. 9, Weber has 16 PP SOG, double that of the second-highest total (Jonathan Drouin‘s eight in 15 GP).

In the 54 games before this slump, Drouin leads with 33 SOG on the power play, followed by Tomas Tatar‘s 31. Weber’s numbers are more limited because of his lengthy bout with injuries, yet it’s interesting see that he generated 14 in 31 games. That’s less than one every two games, versus the one-per-night Weber has averaged during these tough 16 games.

None of this is to say that the Canadiens should stop Weber from shooting on the power play altogether. He really does boast a pretty unique weapon. Despite missing all of those games, he still has 11 goals in 2018-19, and actually just scored the 200th of his fantastic career.

But maybe the Canadiens are telegraphing their attempts to Weber too much.

Things were more effective when shots were dispersed more communally, with the highest-end scorers like Drouin, Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, and Max Domi leading the way. Maybe the Canadiens would be best served pretending that Weber is just another PP QB, and use him a lot like they did with Jeff Petry?

***

Since Feb. 9, the Canadiens’ 43 goals ranks 12th-worst in the NHL, but if you zero in to even-strength, Montreal’s 39 goals comes in at 13th-best.

So, the comforting part of all of this is that the Canadiens have generally been playing well, only that their power play’s been a disaster. The less-comforting part is that, if they don’t figure things out soon, that man advantage might be enough of a disadvantage to derail their playoff hopes.

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 should Golden Knights approach deadline?

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A year ago, the Vegas Golden Knights were taking the NHL by storm and shocking the hockey world. Not only did they make the playoffs, they also finished at the top of the Pacific Division by picking up 109 points in 82 contests. General manager George McPhee was incredibly aggressive at the trade deadline. His main acquisition didn’t pan out, but the team still found a way to get to the Stanley Cup Final.

At this time last year, it became clear that Vegas was pushing hard to land Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators. Right up until the deadline, they felt like they had a chance to get him. Unfortunately for McPhee, that didn’t work out. So instead, he decided to give up a first-rounder in 2018, a second-rounder in 2019 and a third-rounder in 2021 for Tomas Tatar.

Tatar, who is a capable top-six winger, just never fit in with the Golden Knights. It was the first time he had been traded in his career and he just couldn’t find a way to fit in to their magical run. The 28-year-old even served as a healthy scratch on more than once.

So, they decided to ship him to Montreal as part of a trade for Max Pacioretty. In that deal, they also gave up another second-round draft pick and prized prospect Nick Suzuki.

Should McPhee be as aggressive this year as he was in 2018?

The odds of Vegas going on another magical run are slim. Yes, they’re currently sitting in third place in the Pacific, but the magic that was around the team last year doesn’t appear to be there. As we mentioned, they already made a splash in training camp by landing Pacioretty from the Canadiens. Do they really have to make another one?

Thanks to the expansion draft, the Golden Knights were able to acquire multiple first-round picks and some young players. But Tatar and Pacioretty cost them several assets.

McPhee has some quality youth in the pipeline, but it’s important to keep in mind that he was forced to build the pipeline from scratch just two years ago. It might not seem obvious right now, but that pipeline still needs building. The Golden Knights have all of their own picks in the first five rounds and they also have two more in the third round and two more in the fifth round. So in all, they have nine picks in the first five rounds. They also have three more second-round picks in 2020.

When you have that many picks, you can afford to let one or two go, but holding on to their early picks should be a priority. Trading away a first, second and third in a package should be out of the question. Making a depth move makes a lot more sense.

As we saw last week, the market dictates that a player like Brian Boyle is worth a late second-rounder. Boyle is a useful player, but he’s not an impact player. He’s a solid addition for a team hoping to go on a run.

With his team struggling (they’ve lost three games in a row and they have just three victories in their last 10 games), McPhee should look at adding depth to his roster by sending a middle-round pick to a team selling off veteran rentals. He can’t sit there and do nothing, but he shouldn’t feel the need to trade away more key assets. Eventually, they’ll pay the price if they keep doing that.

So trading for guys like Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Artemi Panarin and Wayne Simmonds should be out of the question. It would be nice to get one of those high-end rentals, but it’s probably not wise in the long run.

MORE: Gallant blasts Golden Knights for ‘soft’ play

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.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: 10 teams that could be most active at NHL trade deadline

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we start to get you ready for the trade deadline (which is now just two short weeks away!) by looking at 10 teams around the NHL that could be the most active leading up to trade deadline day.

Some of these teams are sellers. Some of them are buyers. All of them have the potential to be busy over the next two weeks.

Let’s take a look at who is out there and who could be made available.

1. Ottawa Senators — Senators management has a grand plan for what the future of the franchise will look like, but it remains to be seen how they actually get there. In the short-term the stage is set for them to potentially be the biggest sellers at the trade deadline because of the ongoing rebuild and the number of key players that are on expiring contracts, including Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel. Not to mention any other veteran player that could potentially be available. The Senators are trying to re-sign both Stone and Duchene, but the longer it goes without a deal and the closer we get to the deadline the more likely it seems that one or both could be on their way out. The Senators need to find a way to recoup a first-round draft pick after sending theirs to Colorado in the original Duchene trade, and they should be able to get at least one or two if they send out their pending UFA’s. It will not be the potential Jack Hughes pick they sent away, but a rebuilding team without any first-round picks isn’t off to a great start.

2. Detroit Red Wings — Ken Holland started the rebuild, at least a little bit, last trade deadline when he sent Petr Mrazek and Tomas Tatar away for five draft picks. He could be doing even more this season with free agents Jimmy Howard, Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, and Niklas Kronwall all on the roster. Howard and Nyquist are by far the most marketable pieces that he has to deal from and could fetch him a decent return at the deadline. As tempted as the Red Wings might be to try and re-sign Howard given their short-term (and long-term) goaltending situation they should resist that urge and cash in on what has been one of the best seasons of his career. Or at least one of his best seasons in recent memory. A mid-30s Howard isn’t going to be the difference between a good Red Wings team and a bad Red Wings team next season, so they should try to get what they can right now and hope one of the contenders that is a goalie away (looking at you, San Jose) wants to take a chance on a deadline rental to put them over the top.

[Related: Five teams that should be calling about Jimmy Howard]

3. New York Rangers — The Rangers have been shipping out core players for more than a year, dealing away Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller since the start of last season. There will undoubtedly be more moves coming over the next two weeks even though they have put together a nice hot streak here recently. Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello both look like they could be on the move, but would it surprise anyone if they also moved some players that still had term left on their deals or years of team control? Like a Pavel Buchnevich, Vladislav Namestnikov, or even maybe, if the price was right, a Chris Kreider?

4. Columbus Blue Jackets  — This is a totally fascinating team because I have no clue what they are going to do. The Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky contract situations mean that if they do something it is probably going to be massive. A potential playoff team shipping out top-tier players at the deadline would be huge news and significantly alter the course of several playoff teams and potential playoff teams. Or they could also keep them and load up around them for one more run, which would also be significant. Either way GM Jarmo Kekalainen has a chance to do something bold. Standing pat doesn’t seem to be an option. He is either selling or going all in.

5. Los Angeles Kings — Everything! Must! Go! The Jake Muzzin trade was a pretty clear sign that it is finally time to start looking for the future. They already sent away one pending unrestricted free agent on Monday by trading Nate Thompson to the Montreal Canadiens, and Carl Hagelin seems like he could probably be sent elsewhere as well. Their veteran players have some big contracts that might be tough to move, and I don’t expect them to even consider trading Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty, but this still feels like a team whose complete teardown is imminent.

6. Florida Panthers — This is a team to watch because they are clearly trying to position themselves for a run at some big free agents this summer. There is the rumor that they are interested in trying to strike now and get Bobrovsky away from Columbus to sign him before he hits the open market, they are a potential landing spot for Panarin, and they have a few UFAs they can move for more draft picks, including Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan who were acquired in the big blockbuster with Pittsburgh. Will they ship out even more money in an effort to clear even more salary cap space? TSN’s Frank Seravalli mentioned the possibility of Jonathan Huberdeau on Monday, the type of move that would almost certainly indicate they would be all in on free agency.

[Related: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

7. Boston Bruins — Simply put, they have to find some secondary scoring. All of their offense comes from the same five players — Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, David Krejci, and Torey Krug. They are all great, but five players alone producing offense will not get you very far in the playoffs. Especially against the teams they will have to face on their potential postseason path.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — Jim Rutherford tends to strike early before the trade deadline, and he has done that with a few moves already this season (Tanner Pearson, sending Jamie Oleksiak back to Dallas, the big trade with the Florida Panthers) but I just don’t see him being done. He has never done. He is always tinkering with his roster and this roster right now, as currently constructed, is not where the Penguins expect it to be. Almost anything is on the table with this team.

9. Chicago Blackhawks — A lot of this is dependent on what they can do with some veteran players that have no-trade clauses, specifically Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but there are a lot of bloated contracts here that they should explore moving. Not only Seabrook, but also perhaps Anisimov and Brandon Saad.

10.  Washington Capitals — I can’t imagine the defending champs are happy with the way this season has gone over the past few weeks or with the current state of their defense. That has to be high atop their shopping list as they look to make a repeat run at the Stanley Cup. I can’t see them doing anything drastic, but they could definitely use a move or two.

MORE: Defense should top Capitals’ shopping list

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.