Vinnie Hinostroza

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Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

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.

Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Detroit Red Wings fans are right to rejoice. While the move’s been telegraphed for a while, this is indeed a good Friday for the Red Wings, as Steve Yzerman was officially named as their next GM.

Whether it was convincing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to sign team-friendly deals, or identifying the league’s general prejudice against smaller players to unearth draft day bargains, Yzerman* did such a great job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that I’ve called him a magician and/or wizard on multiple occasions.

Even if you’re a vociferous defender of Ken Holland’s latter, sometimes-rebuild-resistant years, chances are, you’re probably very excited about Yzerman’s hiring. The team announced official titles for both Yzerman and Holland, if you like your updates especially granular.

So, to me and plenty others – not just Red Wings fans – this is a shrewd hire.

Still, if there’s one talking point that stands out as especially valid, it’s this: when Yzerman took over the Lightning, he already had an elite center in Steven Stamkos, and a future Norris-winning defenseman in Victor Hedman.

All due respect to Dylan Larkin (who had a strong season, and is only 22) and some other nice players, but the Red Wings don’t have foundational players at quite that superstar level. They do, however, have a pretty interesting setup. If Yzerman is as bright as he seemed to be in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings could really turn things around. All they need is some luck and patience.

Let’s get an idea of the path ahead for Yzerman.

On a Larkin

Look, there’s no shame in Larkin not being quite what Stamkos was in 2010, when Stevie Y took over in Tampa Bay. It’s easy to forget just how potent Stamkos was (the NHL’s most goals [156] and second-most points [283] from 2009-10 to 2010-11), possibly because a few catastrophic injuries briefly derailed his career.

Larkin is fantastic, and stands as the sort of contract you’d build around: a 22-year-old star with a bargain $6.1 million cap hit running through 2022-23.

Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi showed great chemistry with Larkin late in the season, with Mantha in particular boasting the sort of pedigree that points to continued success. One of Yzerman’s early challenges will be to strike affordable deals with Mantha, Bertuzzi, and Andreas Athanasiou, three useful forwards whose contracts expire after 2019-20. Would the best deals come in earlier extensions, or would the Red Wings be wiser to wait? It’s up to Yzerman & Co. to decide, and getting good deals could be key if they want to build a winning core.

Early fruits of rebuild

While I’d argue that Holland dragged his feet multiple times when it came to the rebuilding process, the good news is that when Holland did act, he landed some nice building blocks. In trading away Gustav Nyquist, Nick Jensen, and especially Tomas Tatar, the Red Wings have really loaded up on draft picks, most of which land in the top three rounds.

The development processes are already underway for a few interesting prospects, particularly 2018 first-rounders Filip Zadina (sixth overall) and Joe Veleno (30th). The Red Wings once again pick sixth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, so it’s up to Yzerman to land another blue-chipper, even if Detroit doesn’t get the luxury of a more obvious choice like Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko.

Almost as important is that the Red Wings have loaded up on picks like they’re at Prospect Costco:

  • Last year, they had those two first-rounders, plus: two second-rounders, and three third-rounders to go with their normal set of choices (minus a fifth-rounder).
  • Via Cap Friendly’s handy chart, the Red Wings have two extra second-round picks and one additional fifth-rounder in 2019.
  • In 2020, they have an extra second and third-round pick. (The third-rounder could turn into a second-rounder depending upon the San Jose Sharks’ actions.)
  • They already have an extra third-rounder in 2021.

That’s a fantastic start, eh? Even the best drafting teams would admit that there’s a lot of “dart throwing” involved in drafting, so it makes sense to load up on those darts, especially when you get the added precision of picks in earlier rounds.

The Lightning were adept at finding quality talent off-the-beaten-path under Yzerman,* most notably identifying Brayden Point as a third-rounder (79th in 2014) and Nikita Kucherov in a second round (58th in 2011). If Yzerman can carry that success over to Detroit, even partially, the Red Wings could really make some exciting leaps.

Cleanup duty

Which brings us to the messier part.

For all of Holland’s accomplishments, he left behind a shaggy salary structure. There’s dead money (Stephen Weiss’ buyout lingers through 2020-21), scary contracts (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser), and, erm, maybe too much of a “veteran presence.”

By that I mean this team is old, at least beyond the core. Niklas Kronwall is 38 with a (mercifully) expiring contract, both Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley are 35, and Mike Green is a very banged-up 33. DeKeyser is oft-criticized and not really a spring chicken, either, at 29.

The goalie duo is also creaky. Jimmy Howard was fantastic in 2018-19, but at 35, it’s still surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade him, even with the understanding that they’d come calling during free agency time in July. Jonathan Bernier is 30 and his $3M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.

Most of those trends are disturbing, and while the Red Wings need more talent basically everywhere, the defense and goaltending likely need the most strenuous surgery.

The good news is that a significant chunk of those contracts aren’t lingering too long after Yzerman takes the reins. Kronwall is headed to free agency (or retirement?), while Ericsson, Green, and Daley come off the books after 2019-20. Howard’s extension only lasts through 2019-20, so maybe Yzerman will get trade value out of the veteran where Holland could or would not.

In the short term, and in the case of a few lengthier deals, there’s a significant mess to clean up. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t too dim, however.

Some pain for future gains

I’ve seen at least mild arguments to try to win now, with at least a portion of The Athletic’s Craig Custance piece (sub required) mentioning certain surprise stories in the NHL. And, sure, if the goal were only to make it back to the playoffs (and maybe even win a series), then speeding up the rebuild would make sense.

My guess is that mega-winner Stevie Y wants his best chance at a Stanley Cup, not merely getting the Red Wings to the playoff bubble.

The free agent market dries up pretty quickly when you realize that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky likely wouldn’t find much of a lure to join a rebuilding team in a cold weather city (heck, “Detroiters” even got canceled).

So, instead of chasing mid-tier free agents and settling for mid-tier expectations, Yzerman should use his clout to absorb another rebuild year or two. Doing so would raise the ceiling on this rebuild, for a few reasons:

  • Most directly and obviously, tanking for an even better pick in 2020. If you look at the teams who regularly contend, virtually all of them required high-end talent found early in drafts.
  • Rather than giving valuable playing time to long-in-the-tooth veterans, why not let younger players learn on the job? You might just get an idea of what you have in, say, Michael Rasmussen. Difference-making players are hitting the NHL earlier and earlier, so why not find out which players can actually make a difference?
  • Allow the Red Wings to be a short-term receptacle to clear cap space, with Detroit taking a bribe, whether that means quality draft picks or useful players. See: the Coyotes landing an important scorer in Vinnie Hinostroza in exchange for keeping Marian Hossa‘s contract warm. Yzerman could even call up his buddies in Tampa Bay and offer to absorb the final year of Ryan Callahan‘s contract ($5.8M cap hit). Boy, Anthony Cirelli and/or Mathieu Joseph would look nice with a winged wheel …
  • Going further, getting more cap space means that the Red Wings could position themselves to land better players in trades than they’d likely entice in free agency. Perhaps teams would ready for the expansion draft by sending good, would-be-exposed players to Detroit for something? Maybe the Hurricanes would sour on Dougie Hamilton, or something similar would happen with P.K. Subban, considering his hefty $9M price tag? Could the Red Wings echo former exec Jim Nill in being the next team to say “Why, yes, we’d love to take Tyler Seguin for 25 cents on the dollar, thank you.”

***

This isn’t an easy job, and again, some of this comes down to luck. Still, it’s easy to see why Red Wings fans are excited.

Make no mistake about it, though: Yzerman has his work cut out for him. It could be the fun sort of work that you’d get from tinkering with a car in the garage, and it should be fascinating for those of us who are dorks when it comes to studying how teams are put together.

* – And his staff, including current GM Julien BriseBois. We could have a lengthy, basically impossible-to-resolve discussion about who was most responsible for the great building in Tampa Bay, but it would be pretty fruitless. And, really, wouldn’t all smart GMs want to surround themselves with other smart people?

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.

Grubauer extraordinary as Avalanche extend wildcard lead

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‘Gruuuuu’ will be the soundtrack to the Arizona Coyotes’ nightmares tonight when they lay their heads down to sleep tonight.

Enter Sandman? Nah. Enter Philipp Grubauer.

An incredible 42-save effort, one that included Grubauer shaking off two third-period goals that brought the Coyotes level with the Colorado Avalanche in the final eight minutes game, gave the Avalanche a crucial 2-1 shootout win in a pivotal game that may have just settled the wildcard race in the Western Conference.

Colorado’s big offseason acquisition pulled through in the clutch. He survived a 20-shot barrage in the third, stopped three shots in overtime and then turned aside Nick Cousins, Alex Galchenyuk and then Vinnie Hinostroza with a sprawling right-pad save in the shootout to put the Avs three points ahead of the Coyotes with four games to go.

Is it over for the Coyotes? It’s probably a bit too early to say that, but the Avalanche hold the keys to their own playoff destiny now, and no one but themselves and prevent them from unlocking that final spot in the Western Conference.

Arizona certainly showed some poise facing a 2-0 deficit in the second half of the third frame.

Here’s a quick synopsis:

With exactly 8:01 remaining in the third period, the Coyotes and their season appeared to be evaporating quickly.

With exactly 8:00 left in the frame, their Oliver Ekman-Larsson threw them a lifeline.

A captain’s goals if there ever was one, OEL pulled the Coyotes to 2-1. But the Coyotes were still in need of another here. Or the same one. That’d work.

And with exactly 49 seconds left and the net empty 200 feet the other way, OEL did it again to at least secure a point.

Darcy Kuemper turned in a big performance of his own, making 25 saves, including a couple biggies on Nathan MacKinnon, who was flying.

The return of Gabriel Landeskog after a nine-game absence with an upper-body injury was a big boon to the Avs, who are also without Mikko Rantanen. Landeskog provided the assist on MacKinnon’s 1-0 goal.

Derick Brassard even scored, with the trade deadline acquisition finding a big goal.

Both of Colorado’s goals came on the power play, significant because the Coyotes came into the game with the NHL’s best penalty kill. Arizona didn’t give the Avs much five-on-five, so the extra room to breathe on the power play played a critical role.

Colorado has St. Louis, Edmonton, Winnipeg and San Jose left on their schedule. The way Friday’s game shook out was the worst-case scenario for the Minnesota Wild, who are also in the fight four points back after a big win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday. Minnesota meets Arizona on Sunday.

The race isn’t over, but some clarity was gained.


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

Kuemper’s outstanding 2019 is driving Coyotes’ playoff push

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Plenty has been written about the resiliency the Arizona Coyotes have shown in fighting through injuries during their stunning ascent into what’s currently a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That’s been the case at PHT, for sure, as Sean Leahy’s been able to go in-depth with both coach Rick Tocchet and GM John Chayka regarding those challenges. It’s understandable, as Tocchet described the Coyotes’ rash of injuries as something he’s never seen during his “30-something years” in the NHL.

But, to me, the true story of the Coyotes’ rise comes down to one goalie: Darcy Kuemper.

Kuemper clearly made some New Year’s resolutions

Since Feb. 19, the Coyotes’ 20 points leads all NHL teams, yet they’ve been outshot 401-357 during that same time. They’ve generally been a bottom-third team from a possession stats standpoint this season, and they actually slipped further during this 10-2-0 run.

While the Coyotes have done a better job of winning the high-danger scoring chance battle than they have the overall shot share struggle, Kuemper’s still far-and-away the difference.

During this run, Kuemper’s 10 wins tower over the pack, as the closest since Feb. 19 are a handful of goalies with seven victories. His .943 save percentage sparkles, too.

However, there might be a reflex to wave that off as a matter of small sample sizes. Interestingly, it really seems as though Kuemper became a new goalie once the calendar hit 2019.

Since Jan. 1, Kuemper’s topped all goalies with 19 wins, and he’s collected a stellar .930 save percentage over 27 games played. That’s a resounding turnaround for a goalie whose save percentage was under .900 between November and December.

Kuemper’s pivotal work wasn’t lost on Chayka, as he praised the goalie during that March 8 PHT interview.

“This is the story of our season,” Chayka said. “A guy gets an opportunity they might not of otherwise had with some of the injuries and he steps up and elevates his game. He’s been a big story for us. He’s been a rock for us back there. He gives the guys a lot of confidence and allows them to go and play their game …”

When it was clear by December that Antti Raanta would be out for most, if not all, of the 2018-19 season, I plainly wondered if the Coyotes had any hope of making a playoff push.

There was a feeling of sadness there, as Chayka seemed to identify Raanta as a goalie with high-end starter talent, but maybe not the body (or at least the health luck) to withstand such a workload. Kuemper’s run argues that Chayka actually identified two difference-makers in net.

Who has been scoring?

Kuemper stands as Exhibits A through Z on why the Coyotes are enjoying this meteoric rise, but let’s ponder a few other factors.

Interestingly, there’s only one Coyotes skater who’s been a point-per-game player during this 10-2-0 run over 12 games. With Thursday’s natural hat trick, Vinnie Hinostroza now has 12 points in as many games. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the only other player with double-digits points during that span with 10.

You’d think that Clayton Keller (seven points) and Alex Galchenyuk (four) would have been bigger parts of this jump up the standings, but the Coyotes have instead been scoring by committee … and, of course, mainly keeping other teams from scoring. They only allowed 25 goals during this stretch, just a touch over two goals per game.

(Blurts out Kuemper.)

Interesting tests ahead

While the Coyotes began to heat up during a three-game road trip (losing in Calgary on Feb. 18, then beginning to catch steam with two away victories), they’ve generally played quite a bit at home. The Coyotes went 6-1-0 during a seven-game homestand from Feb. 24 – March 9, forming a big part of this hot streak.

It should be interesting, then, to see how they handle a mixed bag remaining schedule.

On one hand, the slate features quite a few games against non-playoff teams. That’s especially true if the Blackhawks feel less spry by March 26, and the Avalanche find themselves far out of the mix by March 29.

Regardless, after Saturday’s home game against the Oilers, face a four-game road trip, and play five of six away from Glendale from March 21-29.

That’s not the sort of stretch that automatically spells doom, yet it might serve as a challenge for a team that’s sometimes winning by thin margins. (Then again, their last two wins were by 6-1 and 3-1, so maybe they’re heating up on offense, too?)

***

Pointing out how Kuemper-driven Arizona’s run has been isn’t meant to condemn the Coyotes’ efforts. Considering all of their injuries, how else would you realistically expect a team that’s not exactly star-studded to win games?

The Coyotes have built themselves a bit of a buffer ahead of bubble teams like the Wild (get the lowdown at Push for the Playoffs), to the point that they have a strong chance of holding onto a spot.

If they pull this off, Kuemper would really push Jordan Binnington and Nikita Kucherov for (the imaginary) second-half MVP.

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: Big night for Coyotes — and Kucherov

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Three Stars

1. Nikita Kucherov

Let’s keep this one pretty simple, because we went deep on where Kucherov’s 115 points ranks in recent history here.

Narrowing the focus to Kucherov scoring two goals and two assists for four points in Thursday’s game is impressive enough. Kucherov grabbed the game-winning goal in this one, his second GWG in his last three games (both of those decisive goals came against Detroit, by the way).

Kucherov had a +1 rating in that tight win against the Red Wings, firing five shots on goal and ending up with just under 21 minutes (20:58) in that game. Masterful work by the clear frontrunner for the Hart Trophy.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza

While he’s been streaky in 2018-19, nights like these provide useful reminders of why a lot of stats-minded people were excited about Hinostroza’s potential after he was traded from Chicago.

For the first time in his career, the 24-year-old generated a hat trick, and Hinostroza added the flourish of making it a natural hat trick. Despite a modest 13:43 in ice time in Arizona’s win against Anaheim, Hinostroza fired eight SOG on his way to that hat trick.

Hinostroza now has 15 goals and 34 points in 61 games this season, and four goals in his last two contests. With the Wild losing in regulation and the Coyotes winning big, the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs suddenly look remarkably likely for Arizona.

They’re also only four points behind Vegas for third place in the Pacific, although that’s a big hurdle to leap with the Golden Knights also holding a game in hand.

3. Anders Nilsson

There were some very strong goalie performances beyond Nilsson on Thursday, with Darcy Kuemper stopping 37 out of 38 shots, Thomas Greiss making 33 out of 34 saves, and Casey DeSmith managing a 26-save shutout. There were also other worthy scoring performances, particularly by Brett Connolly (two goals, one assist) and Mark Scheifele (one goal, two assists).

But Nilsson managed an impressive 35-save shutout, boosting his 2018-19 save percentage from .908 to .915. He did so against a strong Blues team, too.

It doesn’t really do the lowly Senators a whole lot of good, but it might improve Nilsson’s chances of staying in the NHL in 2019-20, whether he remains with Ottawa or lands somewhere else.

Highlight of the Night

This got its own post, but it’s tough to top Zdeno Chara being strong enough to send Scheifele’s stick soaring, only for Scheifele to score a goal. Good times.

By the way, the lowlight was really a highlight, too, as Tyler Seguin was a good sport in absorbing grief for missing on an empty net. That got its own post as well.

Factoids

Scores

PIT 5 – BUF 0
NYI 2 – MTL 1
WAS 5 – PHI 2
OTT 2 – STL 0
TBL 5 – DET 4
DAL 4 – MIN 1
WIN 4 – BOS 3
ARI 6 – ANA 1
NSH 3 – LAK 1
FLA 4 – SJS 2

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.