Tyler Toffoli

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Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.

Stunning numbers through Round 2 of Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Throughout the season we have been taking an occasional look at some stunning numbers from around the NHL.

Today, we take a look at some stunning numbers from throughout the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

This week’s numbers include Brent Burns‘ incredible workload, Carolina’s struggling special teams, and Jaden Schwartz‘s weird season. 

Brent Burns’ minutes keep increasing

We mentioned this after Round 1 and it’s worth mentioning again because the workload the San Jose Sharks are throwing at Burns is pretty remarkable.

Through the Sharks’ first 14 games the Norris Trophy finalist has already played 409 minutes, which is an incredible 53 minutes more than any other player in the league this postseason (via NHL PR). Since the NHL started time-on-ice numbers that is the 16th highest total for any player through their team’s first 14 playoff games. Only three players have exceeded that number since 2010 (Alex Pietrangelo in 2016, Drew Doughty in 2014, and Duncan Keith in 2015).

As impressive as Burns’ ice time numbers are this postseason, what is truly stunning is look at the minutes Chris Pronger used to play for the St. Louis Blues. During the 1999 playoffs he played an almost unbelievable 466 minutes in 13 games. The only reason it isn’t totally unbelievable? Two years later he played 475 minutes through the Blues’ first 14 playoff games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Carolina’s special teams are still struggling 

The Hurricanes have looked great this postseason during 5-on-5 play, dominating possession, playing with speed, and looking like a franchise that is on the rise and ready to position itself as a Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

Their run to the Eastern Conference Final so far has been impressive.

Even more impressive when you consider they are getting next to nothing from their special teams units.

Through Game 1 of the ECF series the Hurricanes’ power play is converting on just 12.2 percent of its chances with the man-advantage. Among the 86 teams that have appeared in at least 12 playoff games since the start of the 2005-06 season, that number is among the 12 worst.

Their penalty kill is even worse.

After giving up two quick power play goals to the Boston Bruins on Thursday night, the Hurricanes have successfully killed off just 73.2 percent of their power plays in the playoffs. Among the same sampling of teams mentioned above, that number is the fifth worst.

Carolina’s power play wasn’t great during the regular season, but the penalty kill was among the league’s 10 best. It has not had anywhere near as much success in the playoffs. Part of that is due to getting seven games against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in Round 1, a matchup that will damage any team’s PK success rate, but they have also give up five power play goals in the five games since then.

It is a testament to how dominant they have been during 5-on-5 play that they have still been able to win eight out of their first 12 playoff games while getting so little production from their special teams units.

Jaden Schwartz’s roller coaster season 

Schwartz could not buy a goal during the regular season.

Among forwards that recorded at least 160 shots on goal, Schwartz’s 6 percent shooting percentage was the third worst in the NHL ahead of only Buffalo’s Evan Rodrigues (5.3 percent) and Los Angeles’ Tyler Toffoli (5.8 percent). For a player that had never shot lower than 10 percent in his career, and only once lower than 12 percent, it was a horribly unlucky season for the Blues’ forward.

His luck has changed dramatically in the playoffs.

Entering Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday, Schwartz has already scored eight goals in 13 games for the Blues (after just 11 goals in 69 games during the regular season).

He has done so by scoring on 22.9 percent of shots, the second highest shooting percentage in the league among forwards with at least 20 shots in the playoffs.

The thing is, if you combine his regular season and playoff numbers together he is looking at exactly an 82-game sampling, or what would be a full regular season.

In those 82 games he has 19 goals on 218 shots. Still a notch below his normal career average of around 23 goals per 82 games, but far closer than his final regular season numbers. He probably wasn’t bad during the regular season, just a little unlucky. With more games added to his sampling for the year, the percentages started to regress in his favor.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning host Kings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tampa leads the NHL with 47 wins and 98 points this season. Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL with 100 points (T-career high, set last year) and a career-high 70 assists. Both the Lightning and Kucherov are on historic paces this season

TB is the first team in NHL history to win at least 47 of its first 62 games of a season. They are looking to win their first-ever Presidents’ Trophy this season. The last team to win the Presidents’ Trophy and win the Stanley Cup was the Blackhawks in 2013, and before that was the Detroit Red Wings in 2008

Kucherov is on pace to hit 92 assists and 132 points this season. The last player with 90-plus assists was Joe Thornton in 2006-07 (92). Kucherov would become the first player with 130+ points since 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux (161 points) and Jaromir Jagr (149 points) both did so. 

The Kings are on a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2) and sit in last place in the Western Conference with 52 points. They are having problems in all areas of the game right now – offense defense, the power play and penalty kill

Simply put, the Kings have struggled to score this year. They rank 30th in the NHL averaging 2.34 goals/game. In a season where around half the league is scoring three or more goals per game, it’s no shock that the Kings sit in the basement of the Western Conference.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Los Angeles Kings at Tampa Bay Lightning
Where: Amalie Arena
When: Monday, Feb. 25, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Kings-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

KINGS
Alex IafalloAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Ilya KovalchukJeff CarterTyler Toffoli
Brendan LeipsicAdrian Kempe – Jonny Brodzinski
Kyle CliffordTrevor LewisAustin Wagner

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty
Dion PhaneufMatt Roy
Paul LaDueSean Walker

Starting goalie: Jack Campbell

LIGHTNING
Ondrej PalatSteven StamkosJ.T. Miller
Tyler JohnsonBrayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliYanni Gourde
Adam ErneCedric Paquette – Mathieu Joseph

Victor HedmanDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnAnton Stralman

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Rick Peckham (play-by-play) and Jim Fox (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones.

Flyers’ winning streak ends in dramatic fashion

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With a minute remaining in Thursday’s contest against the Los Angeles Kings, it seemed like the Philadelphia Flyers would finally see their eight-game winning streak end.

It ultimately did, but not in regulation. Jakub Voracek scored the tying goal with just 17.6 seconds left, sending the contest into overtime. The overtime period featured plenty of drama, including a tremendous save by Anthony Stolarz, but the game required a shootout.

And even the shootout was pretty exciting.

For one thing, Claude Giroux made some beautiful moves to score in the shootout, and Philly held a brief lead. It looked like the Flyers would extend the streak to nine games, but then an Adrian Kempe shot that at first seemed to hit the post actually was a goal. Ultimately, Los Angeles won the shootout, earning a 3-2 (SO) victory, with Drew Doughty jawing at the Flyers.

Maybe it feels a little silly for a Kings team that is destined to hit the links by April, yet considering all that late drama, it was pretty understandable.

Here are some of the big moments.

1. Voracek’s goal. Jonathan Quick didn’t really stand a chance.

2. Stolarz save, even without his stick.

3. Tyler Toffoli‘s shootout-winner.

The Kings don’t have much to look forward to beyond getting answers around the trade deadline, and the Flyers still face such a steep climb that it’s tough to imagine a full run to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but this was an exciting way for Philly to see its exhilarating run end.

And, hey, the point streak is still going.

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.

The Buzzer: Hart wins seventh straight; Kempe comes up big

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Three stars

1. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

Name a hotter goaltender in the NHL right now? Here’s a hint: there isn’t one.

Hart now has seven straight wins and the Flyers now have won eight straight after he stopped 41 shots in a 2-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks.

We could go on and on about how good Hart has been during this stretch, but this save from tonight basically sums it up.

2. Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings

Kempe scored twice, tying the game on two occasions, including the 3-3 goal with a minute left in the third period to send game to overtime.

From there, Kempe played the role set up man on the game-winning goal from Tyler Toffoli, capping a three-point night in which he left his mark and then some. The Kings needed the win after giving up a 2-1 lead in the third period on Saturday against New York’s other team, the Islanders.

3. Andreas Johnsson, Toronto Maple Leafs

Leafs fans might clamor for Jake Muzzin here. Sure, he scored his first goal in those blue threads, but it was rookie Johnsson’s four-point night that stood out more.

The 24-year-old had two goals and two helpers, including the game-winner in the second period. He also assisted on Muzzin’s goal.

Muzzin had his first three points with the Leafs, scoring a goal and adding an assist.

Highlights of the night

Kempe’s goal after Ilya Kovalchuk‘s dirty pass:

Three goals, 71 seconds:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 6, Ducks 1
Kings 4, Rangers 3 (OT)
Flyers 2, Canucks 1
Stars 5, Coyotes 4


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