Carl Hagelin is just what the Capitals needed

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Carl Hagelin was made for this time of year, and after spending the bulk of his career as a thorn in the side of the Washington Capitals at playoff time, they are now going to be the team benefitting from the unique brand of chaos he can create.

So far, he has been just what they needed in their quest to defend their title.

The Capitals acquired Hagelin from the Los Angeles Kings just before the NHL trade deadline in exchange for two mid-round draft picks in a trade that was probably easy to miss because, at the time, Hagelin had recorded just two goals and eight total points in 38 games that he split between the Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins. He was not lighting up the scoreboard, he had missed time due to injury, and it simply wasn’t the type of trade that was going to steal headlines, especially as bigger name players like Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Wayne Simmonds were moving around the league.

Sometimes, though, it can be the smaller trade that ends up making the big difference.

The thing that gets tricky about evaluating Hagelin is that he is not always going to make a huge difference in ways that you easily notice, especially when it comes to his offense. If anything, his play with the puck on his stick will do more to frustrate you than impress you because he is the master of the “create a great scoring chance but never capitalize on it” play.

His speed will cause havoc for opposing defenders, he will find himself on at least one or two breakaways per week, and he will score the occasional goal. But you will always find yourself wanting more and wondering what sort of player he would be if he actually converted on more of the chances he always seems to create.

If he did convert on more of them he would probably be out of the Capitals’ price range under the salary cap because he does everything else so well. That “everything else” is what makes him such a valuable asset to his team this time of year.

There is always more of an emphasis on defensive play this time of year, and shoring up their own defensive play had to be a big priority for the Capitals leading up to the trade deadline. They did address that with the addition of Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings, but defensive play isn’t just about the players that play on the blue line.

Forwards also play a big role in that, and there are few in the NHL that are better without the puck than Hagelin.

He has always been an outstanding possession player and has never had a single season in his career where he finished with a Corsi Percentage lower than 50 percent. Only twice has he finished with a mark lower than 53 percent. He has also been one of the best in the NHL when it comes to shot-suppression and scoring chance differentials.

Some numbers for you to consider.

First, here is where Hagelin ranks among the 510 forwards that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time since the start of the 2016-17 season. He is among the top-10 percent of the league in shot attempt differential (CF%), fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60), and scoring chance differential (SC%)…

This season alone he is among the top-50 in all three categories among 348 forwards.

Now let’s look at the penalty kill and his ranks among the 160 forwards that have logged at least 200 PK minutes since the start of the 2016-17 season when it comes to preventing shot attempts, shots on goal and scoring chances, which are all the biggest factors in killing penalties and the best predictor of future penalty killing success.

Again, he is among the most elite forwards in the league.

When you hear about shutdown forwards, this is what you should be envisioning.

His addition has also helped make the Capitals forward lineup far deeper than it was earlier in the season.

Since arriving he has spent a significant portion of his ice-time skating on the third line alongside Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, a trio that has been fairly dominant since they have been assembled. Hagelin alone has already matched (or exceeded) his own individual production from what he did in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, and the line as a whole has been great. In more than 90 minutes the Capitals are controlling more than 62 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, while also outscoring teams by an 8-3 margin.

Compare that to what Eller and Connolly were doing without Hagelin on their wing.

Yes, those are two very different sample sizes in terms of ice-time with and without, and the former is only 90 minutes, so it might be understandable to have some skepticism with these numbers. But Hagelin has had this sort of impact on just about every line he has been a part of over the past few years. You see the impact he has had here, keep in mind that in Pittsburgh Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have had the exact opposite situation play out since Hagelin was traded.

He may not ever finish plays for himself, but he gets to loose pucks, he wins battles, he is always the safe, responsible one that makes the right plays, he is excellent defensively, and his speed causes havoc and creates space for his linemates. All of this adds up.

With Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuzetsov driving the first line, and Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie dominating on the second line, the Capitals now have three lines that can hurt their opponents. That is a big part of why they have gone 9-2-1 since the trade deadline and played like one of the best teams in the league since his arrival.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season Hagelin has played in 14 more playoff games than any other player in the NHL, and has always played beyond at least the first round in those seasons, reaching the Stanley Cup Final three times with two different teams. A lot of that is due to having the good fortune of playing on a lot of really good teams that have Hall of Famers. Obviously, he is not the only reason for that success. But it is also not just a coincidence and good fortune, either. He is definitely a part of it. Nearly a quarter of those playoff games he has played during that stretch have come against the Capitals, and he has been a big part of why his team has won three of the four series he has played against them.

Now he might be one of the reasons the Capitals have a chance to advance.

Maybe even against one of the teams he used to torment them with.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Karlsson, Panarin, Bobrovsky can close strong and cash in

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Many NHL teams have plenty to play for down the final stretch of the regular season, trying to get in the playoffs or to improve their positioning, before 16 teams compete for the Stanley Cup.

Some players have a lot at stake, too.

Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are a few of the potential free agents in the league with a chance to close strong and cash in by re-signing with their teams or on the open market.

The top trio of stars and some other standouts with a lot to gain financially when the season is finished, if not sooner:

KARLSSON

The San Jose Sharks acquired the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman from Ottawa before the season started, hoping they would have him for more than a year. To keep Karlsson off the market as an unrestricted free agent, San Jose may have to at least match the eight-year, $88 million deal the Los Angeles Kings gave defenseman Drew Doughty to stay last summer.

PANARIN

Dynamic scorers like the Russian winger rarely are available in free agency and a team that wants to spend a lot of money over many years may be able to land an 80-point scorer. Panarin has already said he wants to see if there are better options in the summer than staying with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are simply hoping he helps them win at least a postseason series for the first time.

BOBROVSKY

Big-time goaltenders, like the two-time Vezina Trophy winner, usually stay with their teams and off the market. Like his teammate and fellow countryman, the 30-year-old Bobrovsky will probably want to make the most of his opportunity to make as much money as he can with his next deal while being at or near the prime or his career.

Matt Duchene

It was a good time for the center, and his bank account, to have one of the best years of his career. He’s averaging more than a point per game this season, starting with Ottawa, before being dealt to Columbus . If Panarin and Bobrovsky appear to be leaving in free agency after the season, the Blue Jackets may give the 28-year-old Duchene a lot to stay before the market opens.

Jeff Skinner

The center has a shot to surpass the 63 points he has reached twice before the team he plays for, the Buffalo Sabres, are relegated to watching the postseason for an eighth straight season. The Sabres want to re-sign Skinner, but he might be willing to take a seven-year deal – instead of the eight he can get to stay – and join a Stanley Cup contender.

Jake Gardiner

He has been out for nearly a month with a back injury, but barring it lingering into the playoffs to cast doubt on his long-term health, one of the best defensemen available will be paid well to stay in Toronto or to go play for another team.

Wayne Simmonds

The winger has not produced much offensively with Nashville, which acquired him from Philadelphia, and yet he will have a chance to make a lasting impression when it matters most in the playoffs. Simmonds has a rare combination of scoring ability, toughness and durability.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

There is an excellent group of players eligible to be restricted free agents, including: forwards Mikko Rantanen, William Karlsson, Brayden Point, Mitch Marner, Sebastian Aho and Matthew Tkachuk along with defensemen Jacob Trouba and Zach Werenski. Teams, though, rarely extend offer sheets to other franchise’s restricted free agents as Philadelphia did in 2012 with a $110 million, 14-year deal for Shea Weber, only to have the Predators match it.

After tough start, JVR is showing why Flyers brought him back

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For a while there, JVR felt a little … well, JV for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Two main factors seemed to complicate things for James van Riemsdyk as he tried to justify that five-year, $35 million contract to return to Philly. The first was a freak injury, right in the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

The other was even more out of JVR’s hands than the bad luck of getting hurt: the Flyers were transitioning from Wayne Simmonds to JVR, particularly on the power play, and it wasn’t exactly a seamless passing of the torch.

[JVR came into this season under pressure.]

Bumpy start

Flyers coach Scott Gordon saw JVR’s season firsthand, as he went from hurt and a bit lost to his current red-hot streak, where van Riemsdyk now has 10 goals in his last 11 games.

“I think being out that time and not really …he almost didn’t have a role with the team for a while there,” Gordon said, via Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post. “He wasn’t playing as much power-play time, not playing as much top-six ice time and so now I find he’s skating more consistent, getting involved in the play up and down the ice and just has the puck more often. Getting to the front of the net more often obviously, whether it’s a tip or a rebound, that’s critical for anybody but to do that you’ve got to be around the net and he’s been around the net more.”

The turnaround truly has been remarkable, as JVR now has 25 goals and 42 points despite being limited to 56 games played.

2019 has been kind to JVR, so far

JVR is tied for the second-most goals since 2019 began with 20, and no player has more goals than his nine since the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

As with any sniper who’s scoring at an even higher level than usual, a hot streak will eventually be iced, and that’s true with JVR. His 18.8 shooting percentage overall this season is a little high – even for a player who has a knack for getting to the areas of the ice where you can get quality shots, and one who is among the best at finishing such chances – and his luck has been even better lately.

But, to me, it’s the renewed clarity of it all that bodes well for JVR’s short-term future, and the Flyers’ chances of getting the most out of him in 2019-20.

Yes, scoring nine times on 35 shots on goal (25.7 shooting percentage) is unsustainable, but it’s a great sign that van Riemsdyk is firing the puck that often.

It sure seems like JVR isn’t just getting the green light, but that he knows it. Not only does he have eight goals in as many March games, but after averaging 16:26 TOI or less in previous months this season, he’s averaged 18:18 per game during March. That’s an exciting development for a player who went from heavy usage during Toronto’s awkward years, to being shuttled into more of a specialist role during his final two seasons with the Maple Leafs. The thought was that JVR scored incredibly well considering a bit under 16 minutes of ice time in 2016-17 and a bit under 15 in 2017-18, so imagine what he could do with fuller minutes … but he was sort of relegated to that same, more supporting duty through most of this first season.

If the Flyers carry over this finish to giving JVR a heightened role in 2019-20, they might just enjoy the sort of rewards that would get people to look at his $7M as a bargain.

… At least for a while.

Will it all line up?

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher faces an interesting question, with an invisible deadline from Father Time: can he put a few more pieces together to take advantage of what this team has, before a decline happens?

JVR is already 29, and will turn 30 in May. Jakub Voracek is 29 as well, while Claude Giroux is 31.

For every Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and other player who continues to play at a high level past age 30, there are scary examples of other steep declines. The stories are especially frightening for power forward-types like JVR. Wayne Simmonds himself has already been showing signs of decay, while Milan Lucic and James Neal rank as some of the starkest examples of how steep the falls can be.

Will the Flyers be able to best take advantage of the remaining high-level years of productivity, however many there might be? As much as Philly can look at many positive developments heading into 2019-20 (and beyond), it remains to be seen if they can make all the pieces fall into place at the perfect time to contend – for real – for at least a few years.

If nothing else, JVR looks far more capable of being a big part of that solution as of today, compared to earlier this season.

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.

Predators’ top line is dominant when you look deeper

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It’s never been a better time for those of us who want to know every little thing that we can about hockey. From in-depth features on the nuances of the game, to increasingly insightful “fancy stats,” you can go deep down that hockey rabbit hole.

Even with all of that information in mind, it’s still easy to miss things. Take, for example, how the Nashville Predators’ top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg really isn’t that far behind the best combinations in the NHL.

If you merely look at season totals, you’ll think reasonably highly of the trio, but maybe not fully absorb how dominant they’ve been.

Johansen has 58 points, and that’s reasonably reflective of his season, as he’s played in 71 of 73 games.

His wingers have been outstanding, especially since they’ve missed quite a bit of time with injuries.

Arvidsson on a 50-goal pace

Perennially underrated, constantly-moving Swedish scorer Arvidsson might be having the most impressive season. He’s also tied his career high of 31 goals … in just 49 games. If Arvidsson maintained that .63 goals-per-game pace through 73 games, he’d have about 46 goals right now. Over an 82-game season, he’d have between 51 and 52 (51.66).

Now, sure, the bounces would start to even out in a less positive way for Arvidsson, as his shooting percentage is by far at a career-high of 19.3 percent.

Yet, it still all points to career-best work. Arvidsson’s up to 19:16 TOI per game, a significant jump from last season’s career-high of 17:45 per contest.

Taking the ball and running with it

In general, the Predators realize that they need to lean on this trio for their offense, and it shows beyond ice time. After being closer to fifty-fifty with zone starts previously, the top line has been leveraged for offense more than ever, beginning 64.9 to 67 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone.

Speaking of those meatier numbers, one of the most promising developments is that Johansen is sure looking like a true top-line center. Johansen’s enjoying some of the best possession numbers of his career, and his .82 points-per-game average in 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career.

For a while, Johansen’s $8 million cap hit seemed like a mild problem for the Predators. Now it seems perfectly fine, and only really pales in comparison to the obscene discounts for Forsberg ($6M) and Arvidsson ($4.25M).

Forsberg is probably the player most widely acknowledged as a star, likely in part because of his penchant for scoring highlight-reel goals. He’s also the player who has probably been most shortchanged by injuries over the years. Forsberg has 25 goals in just 55 games this season, after managing 26 while being limited to 67 contests in 2017-18.

(Much like his linemates, Forsberg’s been more than opponents can handle possession-wise, too.)

Now, we can tussle about where the Predators’ top line ranks among the best of the best. But the point is that they’re really not that far behind the upper-most of the elite, making Nashville a team with an interesting ceiling.

Because, for the most part, the Preds have pieces that only a few other contenders also have.

Their defense is much-hyped, and rightfully so. They not only have a veteran starter in Pekka Rinne, but an increasingly proven backup/goalie of the future in Juuse Saros.

Still searching for scorers beyond the big three — and that defense

But, yes, there is an issue: are the Predators something of a one-line team?

It’s telling that a) the top line players lead all other forwards, despite Arvidsson and Forsberg missing so much time and b) three of the Predators other top-six scorers are defensemen, with Roman Josi‘s 55 points sitting not that far behind Johansen’s 58 for the team lead.

(Mattias Ekholm has 42 points, while Ryan Ellis is at 37.)

Craig Smith‘s the highest-scoring forward after that trio with 33 points. Being that 19 of those points are goals, Smith’s been a useful player – as usual – for the Predators.

The key, then, is to get his would-be linemates on track by the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While Johansen’s been justifying his price tag, Kyle Turris hasn’t exactly looked like a $6M center this season. Turris’ already-rough season hit a new low with a recent healthy scratch, but maybe he can start to get things back on track, beginning with a likely return to the lineup during Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs?

(Granted, he’s currently slated for fourth-line duty, so it might be an uphill battle.)

[More in the Morning Skate]

Mere ripples after from splashy moves

The Predators were aggressive during the trade deadline, but the returns haven’t been astronomical.

Mikael Granlund‘s four points in seven games can be considered acceptable, yet not exactly mind-blowing. Through eight games, Wayne Simmonds hasn’t scored a single goal, managing just an assist during that span.

Some of these results must be frustrating, no doubt. At least there’s time to find offense beyond that explosive top line, though.

Peter Laviolette could always at least tinker with seeing how it would work to spread the wealth, although too much movement might be messing with a good thing. Granlund could easily slide into a role as center, where he often played with the Wild.

The Predators haven’t enjoyed great results from forwards beyond Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson, but there are at least plenty of options. Hey, maybe this would be a good time to see if Eeli Tolvanen can finally stick in the lineup, too?

Even if none of those other options work out, the NHL’s shifted to being a league that’s heavy with teams who depend largely on their top lines, and the good news is that the Predators’ trio can hang with most of them.

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.

Recent Cup champs show small trades can make big difference

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Nick Jensen was just a Minnesota boy who played his first three seasons in Detroit.

Then he walked into the Washington Capitals’ locker room and saw the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who welcomed their newest defenseman with open arms.

”I never knew them before this and I just see them on TV, and it’s a little star-striking right away,” Jensen said.

Jensen isn’t a star, but he and winger Carl Hagelin sure fit the mold of low key trade-deadline acquisitions who can pay big dividends during a long playoff run. The Capitals learned last year in getting defenseman Michal Kempny how a seemingly small trade can make a big difference, and the defending Stanley Cup champions are among the teams that made low-risk moves at last month’s trade deadline in hopes of reaping a high reward.

Vegas paid a big price to land winger Mark Stone, Winnipeg gave up its first-rounder for center Kevin Hayes and both teams are better for those pickups. Yet recent history shows contenders who tinkered rather than making a splash at the deadline got it right.

”To bring in people that are going to take major roles from some of your core guys, it starts to create some issues,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. ”Any time you have a chance to improve your players and acquire depth and give them a better opportunity to win, you don’t ever pass it up. But it’s something that seems like it’s been a successful one for us last year with a little bit of an under the radar acquisition and then this year the same thing.”

Before the 2018 Capitals, the 2016 Penguins got Hagelin and defenseman Justin Schultz before the deadline, and a year later added Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit for blue line depth and repeated as champions even without Kris Letang. The 2015 Blackhawks similarly added forwards Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins and defenseman Kimmo Timonen before winning their third championship in six seasons.

While Columbus went all in to get forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel even with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky set to be free agents, other playoff teams tweaked to fill existing holes. Nashville paid reasonable prices to upgrade up front with Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund. Winnipeg made perhaps its most important pickup with unheralded defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and Pittsburgh responded to injuries by trading for defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Chris Wideman.

”We feel like we picked up some good pieces,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. ”But for the most part, this is the group that we’ve got to get on the page and get going in the right direction.”

Perhaps one reason minor deadline moves have as big an impact as substantial ones is there’s only a quarter of a season for players to get acclimated to their new teammates. It’s an ongoing process of watching video, studying and adjusting and it all happens on the fly in the midst of valuable games.

”You have to make an impact pretty quickly,” Gudbranson said. ”Just play my game, be physical, make the simple play, be solid and just communicate quite a bit.”

TICKING CLOCKS

NHL general managers have approved adding small digital clocks embedded in rink boards in all four corners beginning next season, an improvement that could add the odd goal or two because players won’t have to look up at a scoreboard for the time anymore.

”It’s a good idea,” Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk said. ”You have an awareness of how much time is on the clock no matter what, but to see it, especially toward the end of a period or whatever may be happening, I think it’s only a good thing for players to have that.”

The league’s Board of Governors must approve the idea first for it to become a reality in all arenas.

HITCH’S MEMORY

The goal that haunts Buffalo Sabres fans isn’t etched in Ken Hitchcock’s memory. Twenty years since he coached the Dallas Stars to the Cup – a series that ended with Brett Hull’s infamous ”skate in the crease” overtime goal – Hitchcock has barely watched the game.

”I watched the game that we lost to New Jersey (in the 2000 Final) 20 times, and I know every shift,” said Hitchcock, who now coaches Edmonton. ”I know everything that went on in that Jersey game. But I never looked at (Game 6 in 1999) until it came up in the summer on the NHL Network, and there was a one-hour highlight package that they show on games. That’s the first time I saw it.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Blue Jackets need all the points they can get as they claw for a playoff spot, and it doesn’t get much bigger than their game against the Penguins on Saturday night.