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Building off a breakthrough: Kevin Fiala

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

Not that long ago, Kevin Fiala breaking his left leg might have totally derailed his career. At minimum, that sort of the thing would have at least set him back a few years.

Such a thought had to surface for some observers during the Nashville Predators’ 2017 Stanley Cup Final run – Fiala was sidelined during the second round – especially since blinding speed ranks as one of his strengths.

How could such a thought not occur in the back of someone’s mind after seeing this?

Instead, this happened not much more than a year later:

That double-OT goal against the Winnipeg Jets in Game 2 of that competitive series was the cherry on top of a breakthrough year for Kevin Fiala, who just turned 22 on July 22.

Rather than floundering after coming back from that injury, Fiala found outstanding chemistry with Craig Smith and Kyle Turris once the latter landed in Nashville. Fiala scored 23 goals and 48 points in 2017-18 after debuting in 2016-17 with 16 points in 54 games. Oh yeah, he also looked like his speedy self in the process.

And, really, there might be more where that came from.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure]

It doesn’t hurt matters that the puck tends to go in the right direction when Fiala’s on the ice. His possession numbers were highly promising last season, and his heat maps indicate that Nashville should make it a point to give Fiala even more opportunities. You can make a strong argument that he deserves a bump up from his TOI average of 15:09 per game from 2017-18, even though Nashville also needs to dole out ice time to a strong top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson.

Granted, his rookie deal is set to expire after 2018-19, so the Predators might want to follow up that proactive Ryan Ellis extension with an extension for Fiala before he shows that he’s capable of even bigger things. Frankly, Fiala could generate the sort of follow-up that could break the bank.

To little surprise, Predators GM David Poile seems aware of Fiala’s potential as another rising contributor, as he noted back in January.

“If you look at his development curve as a stock, I would say it’s going in the right direction and you might want to invest in Kevin Fiala,” Poile said, via NHL.com.

No doubt about it, the Predators must have felt relief once it became clear that Fiala still has world-class wheels.

Even so, we’ve seen plenty of speedy skaters produce middle results in the NHL. It’s one thing to be fast; it’s another to combine speed with creativity, smarts, and finish to really move the needle. Fiala showed plenty of signs that he has that ability, showing why the Predators selected him 11th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

As you’d expect, there were still signs of growing pains here and there. That’s something that happens to players Fiala’s age even if they’re not coming off of a catastrophic injury.

On the Forecheck’s season review cannot help but linger upon some of Fiala’s mistakes, including some foolish penalties. That series against the Jets featured peaks and valleys, as while Fiala scored that huge game-winning goal, Peter Laviolette also sent a message to him by way of a healthy scratch.

Really, some of that stems from young players often taking the fall when it comes to healthy scratches.* Coaches often go back to what they “know” and what feels most comfortable when their teams struggle, and wet-behind-the-ears players sometimes lose that game of musical chairs.

Fiala can avoid that situation in the future by accumulating reps and numbers, not to mention Laviolette’s trust.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see such developments manifest themselves in more ice time, responsibilities, and other signs that Fiala is ascending even further up the ladder. Either way, Fiala seems like he’s going to play an important role for the Predators, and it’s been a quick ascension.

* – Though, the other side of that coin is older players of waning relevance. Scott Hartnell fits that bill, and he’s the one who took Fiala’s spot.

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.

Under Pressure: Tyler Seguin

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

It’s Aug. 10, and the NHL season doesn’t begin until Oct. 3. So there’s still time for Tyler Seguin to strike a deal with the Dallas Stars regarding a contract extension.

That said, as of this writing, Seguin’s entering the 2018-19 campaign with an expiring contract, and it’s easy to see why he might want to ride this out. You can simplify his reasoning in two ways:

1. Seguin probably wants to see if the Stars are capable of contending.

So far, Dallas hasn’t been able to accomplish a whole lot despite enjoying five seasons of Seguin’s services at a ludicrous bargain rate of $5.75 million per season. (Seguin’s cheap contract also intersected with the last years of Jamie Benn‘s own bargain, and is also joined by John Klingberg‘s dirt-cheap deal.)

The Stars have only won one playoff series since swindling the Boston Bruins in the Seguin deal, while they’ve missed out on the postseason altogether three of those five years.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough]

Before you come up with a convoluted explanation for why Seguin is to blame for Dallas’ disappointments, consider the outstanding work he’s put in for the Stars. In 387 games with the Stars since joining their ranks in 2013-14, Seguin ranks sixth in points with 384 (tied with Nicklas Backstrom, who played in 402 games) and second in goals (tied with Sidney Crosby, who played in 394) with 173.

That’s pretty incredible work, even if you ignore how underpaid Seguin has been. At 26, Seguin’s never received a chance to choose where he plays NHL hockey. Maybe he wants to at least explore his options?

[MORE: Should Seguin re-sign with the Stars?]

2. Seguin might roll the dice to see if he can get a bigger contract.

Here’s where the pressure starts to really build.

If Seguin signed a deal this summer, or sometime during the 2018-19 season, it’s plausible that he’d leave some money on the table. You can certainly make that argument, with, say Nikita Kucherov.

(Imagine what a 100-point, prime-age forward like Kucherov could have made as a UFA?)

Before you paint Kucherov and other extension-signers as fools, there’s the obvious drawback of playing out your contract without a new deal: a career-altering injury could mean a massive loss in money, and the security that goes with it. Such worries can’t be totally disregarded in a violent, dangerous sport like hockey.

Still, Seguin’s about to close off his sixth year of carrying that $5.75M cap hit, which can’t feel great considering the fact that he’s essentially been a $10M player. (And probably worth more than that, if the Sidney Crosby’s and Connor McDavid‘s of the world didn’t sign deals that are relatively team-friendly.)

Seguin could really rake it in, particularly if the market falls the right way. If Auston Matthews, Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin, and other high-level free agents (UFA or RFA, really) end up cashing in, it could set a new high bar for someone like Seguin.

***

On one hand, it probably seems a little zany not to get millions when they’re guaranteed. Such thoughts surely inspired Viktor Arvidsson to accept a longer deal despite an honestly laughable $4.25M AAV.

It’s understandable if Seguin wants to follow in the footsteps of John Tavares, another star center who was grotesquely underpaid (the Islanders squandered Tavares’ Seguin-like six years at $5.5M), hit free agency, and called his shot for a nice deal.

Like Tavares, it might not be about every cent for Seguin. Instead, it could be about getting the closest answer to the best of both worlds: receiving a contract in the ballpark of what he deserves, with the team he wants to play for.

With that in mind, there’s just about as much pressure on the Stars to convince Seguin to stay, as there is pressure on Seguin to earn his next deal.

Still, it’s Seguin who will feel the heat if his gamble doesn’t pay off.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Jagr still holds NHL hope?; Islanders turning the page

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Jaromir Jagr hasn’t given up on the NHL, but he’s in no rush to return either. (Sportsnet)

• The New York Islanders are looking to turn the page after the departure of captain John Tavares. (NHL.com)

Artemi Panarin has given the Columbus Blue Jackets a contract deadline. (The Athletic)

• Would Tyler Seguin want to play with the Montreal Canadiens? (Montreal Gazette)

• Ranking each NHL team based on their locked-in, young core. (ESPN)

• With the thrill of the 2018 NHL Draft already worn off, we might as well take a look ahead to the 2019 rendition and all that it has to offer. (Last Word on Hockey)

• From wives’ room fights to brotherly competition, St. Louis molded Brady Tkachuk. (The Sporting News)

• Do the Vancouver Canucks have an asset on defense that they can work into a trade that would benefit the club? (The Province)

• If you don’t want to read and would rather take two minutes to watch a video, here’s some possible reasons why a trade for Erik Karlsson hasn’t happened yet, here’s your chance. (Sportsnet)

• Where does the line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson — the JoFA line — fit in the pantheon of the league’s top lines? (Pred Lines)

• You want offseason grades for all 31 NHL teams? Here you go. (The Athletic)

• And here’s a list of the best player to ever wear each number in the NHL. (Puck Prose)

• The Class of Canada: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Winnipeg Jets. (The Hockey Writers)

• Help is on the way for the Chicago Blackhawks aging defense. (Chicago Mag)

Mike Hoffman‘s fiancée files for disclosure of information in harassment allegations. (Ottawa Citizen)


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

Predators land another steal in signing Saros, Rinne’s heir apparent

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Nashville Predators GM David Poile hasn’t lost his knack for signing promising young players to outstanding value contracts.

Monday represents the latest coup, as goalie-of-the-future Juuse Saros signed a dirt-cheap deal: three years, just $4.5 million overall (so a $1.5M cap hit). That’s truly fantastic stuff for a goalie whose career save percentage is a superb .923.

Now, obviously, the sample size is small for the 23-year-old. That save percentage was accrued over 48 games, with all but one of those appearances happening during the last two seasons. Still, his numbers are promising at other levels, so there’s some credence to the notion that he could end up being a strong NHL starter.

Considering some of the money being thrown around at backups this summer, the Predators landed a great deal even if Saros doesn’t reach his considerable ceiling.

One would think that this only solidifies the passing of the torch from Pekka Rinne to Saros, but we’ll see. Rinne’s $7M cap hit expires after 2018-19, and at 35, you have to wonder if a decline is looming.

The beauty of getting three years of Saros’ services at such a cheap price is that the Predators aren’t boxed into a corner, though. If they feel most comfortable with a slower transition from Rinne to Saros, possibly morphing into a platoon, that’s an option (especially if, after fattening his bank account, Rinne signs his next deal for a palatable price). There are also some other scenarios: Saros could give the Predators 2-3 years of starter-level work at a cut rate, or Nashville could pivot to a different paradigm in net altogether.

(Honestly, would it be that shocking if Saros ends up being a better goalie than Connor Hellebuyck, for instance?)

Simply put, most – if not all – of the NHL’s other GMs should be jealous of Nashville’s unusual mixture of potential production and flexibility at the goaltending position. Those other GMs should take notes.

[It’s been a great day for Nashville, who also signed Ryan Hartman for cheap.]

Speaking of masterful GM work, this signing swings back to one of Poile’s greatest strengths: locking up promising players to team-friendly deals either before a breakthrough happens or right as it begins.

Consider some of the beautiful contracts he’s put together, leveraging RFA situations and tax-related perks:

  • Again, that Saros salary is sweet, and Rinne’s $7M goes away when Nashville needs to lock down other pieces.
  • Ryan Ellis is about to end a five-year contract that carried an almost comically low $2.5M cap hit. He’ll get paid on his next deal, and deft moves like these make it more feasible for him to stick with the Predators. Ellis is 27, so Nashville landed some of his peak years.
  • Filip Forsberg is a legit game-breaker. The 23-year-old’s cap hit is just $6M through 2021-22 (he’s three years into a six-year contract).
  • Viktor Arvidsson‘s bargain contract is no secret. He’s a top-line, 25-year-old winger making $4.25M per season through 2023-24(!).
  • Nashville boasts two 28-year-old defensemen also on enviable contracts. Roman Josi‘s ridiculous $4M contract ends after 2019-20, a seven-year deal among the best in recent NHL memory. Mattias Ekholm ($3.875M per year, six seasons, ends after 2021-22) is right there with Josi and Ellis as great blueline bargains.
  • Just about anyone can sign a first-rounder to an entry-level contract, but it’s worth noting that Eeli Tolvanen didn’t burn a year off of his rookie deal. If he can live up to the hype, the Predators would get three seasons of his sniping at a ludicrous price.

It almost feels like cheating, right? Most NHL front offices would pop open some champagne if they nabbed two of those steals, let alone the litany of bargains Poile has landed.

Now, sure, there are some expenditures. P.K. Subban absolutely ranks as elite, but $9M isn’t cheap. (He’s worth it, but that isn’t cheap.) Ryan Johansen‘s a little rich at $8M and $6M for Kyle Turris looked a little shakier when he was something of a non-factor during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even then, it’s not outrageous to picture Johansen and/or Turris delivering at a nice level, especially since those deals will account for less and less of each season’s cap percentage.

Once again, it looks like the Predators knocked one of the park with a signing when it comes to Saros.

For all we know, the conglomeration of smart moves could net the Predators a Stanley Cup, and possibly more than one. That said, a lot can happen, so you never know if all of this promise will come to fruition during the rigors (and thanks to the randomness) of the postseason.

Either way, other GMs could learn a lot from David Poile, as this is a masterwork of team-building.

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.

Wild’s new GM faces tough task in finding ‘finishing touches’

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If you look at NHL GM gigs like flipping a home, then some jobs call for a massive renovation, and it must be fun to deal with a “fixer-upper.” But what about when someone wants you to turn an already-expensive house into a mansion?

That’s essentially what’s being asked of longtime Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton as he takes over the Minnesota Wild job from Chuck Fletcher.

Wild owner (and former Predators owner) Craig Leipold at least had a sense of humor about his demands during the press conference that introduced Fenton as GM.

“Our goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey. But, no pressure, Paul,” Leipold said, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

For those who are waiting to interject with a comment along the lines of “Yes, but every team talks about winning the Stanley Cup in these situations” … well, that’s true. Sometimes you can root out some semi-useful information in reading between the lines during these moments, though.

Take, for instance, the video clip below. On one hand, Fenton wants to “move the puck” and play an uptempo style that virtually every team discusses (aside from a relative outlier here or there, like Peter Chiarelli wanting “heavy and hard hockey”). On the other hand, there are some interesting kernels to consider. Fenton at least seems open-minded to making things work with head coach Bruce Boudreau, which is certainly a fair question since he wasn’t a bench boss handpicked by Fenton. Multiple comments also indicate that the Wild hope to ascend to the level of contender rather than going into a rebuild, as “finishing touches” indicate.

If anyone’s ready for a GM job, it’s Fenton. He’s been rising up the Predators organization since 1998, earning glowing reviews from Nashville GM David Poile. There’s a reason he’s been on plenty of GM candidate lists for years.

Minnesota could especially benefit if Fenton observed how Nashville flourished after making courageous trades such as the P.K. SubbanShea Weber swap. Not everyone has the stomach for such risks, but those gambles often separate contenders from pretenders.

There are a number of reasons why Fenton might fail, or at least could struggle. Let’s dive in.

Jumping right into the deep end

The 2018 Stanley Cup Final is nearly upon us. The draft isn’t far away on June 22, and free agency is right afterward. Wild fans have to hope that Fenton’s experience in scouting and his familiarity with the Central Division will come in handy, as this next stretch is a true “trial by fire.”

Fletcher left quite a mess of long-term contracts, most obviously in challenging deals for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, so the Wild aren’t exactly bursting with cap space.

[A deep dive on the mess Fletcher left behind. It’s a mixed bag at best.]

It’s up to Fenton to try to land pending RFAs Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba to team-friendly deals after each player enjoyed easily the best seasons of their NHL careers. Over the years, the Predators have piled up some really nice contracts for players they developed, most notably Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Bargain extensions often come down to timing, however, as you can see in Ryan Johansen getting a Getzlaf-like deal. Fenton faces two challenges in getting Zucker and Dumba signed to affordable contracts, whether that means going short-term or trying to bring the annual price down by handing out more term.

If “finishing touches” boil down to small tweaks and savvy shopping in the discount aisle, that’s fine.

Something more drastic could be highly difficult to pull off …

Central issue

… Because the Wild are in a true meat grinder of a Central Division.

Consider this: Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was being comically hasty in discussing his team becoming a “dynasty.”

That said, when you consider how young and talented that core is, you never know. At minimum, the Jets are structured in a way where they’ll be on-paper favorites against the Wild for the foreseeable future.

Fenton will need to make beautiful music to get his Wild to outmatch his old boss in Nashville, while it’s possible that the Blues and Stars are the ones who are “finishing touches” away from legitimate contention. You can’t totally count out the Blackhawks either (what if Corey Crawford was healthy all season?) and the Avalanche seem like they’re onto something.

One could envision Fenton making the right moves and the Wild still stalling in this first-round limbo. The Central Division is that tough, and there’s a genuine fear that Minnesota simply doesn’t have a high enough ceiling to break through.

***

There’s a school of thought that the Wild might be better off rebuilding, or if that’s too extreme, maybe a brief “reload.”

Minnesota definitely has some talent, and the Wild can look like a contender on better nights. Still, that series against the Jets felt telling; you wonder if they’re doomed to be stuck at good when they need to be great.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.