James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

[MORE: Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

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As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

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.

Fumbling Flames must not panic — certainly not with Gaudreau

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Things are pretty miserable for the Calgary Flames right now.

After suffering their fifth consecutive loss, Calgary saw its current spot solidified: out of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, if they began today. They’re “below .500” at 10-11-3, and whenever they need to add insults to their injuries, they merely need to glance at the latest snarky update about James Neal vs. Milan Lucic.

Johnny Gaudreau (and to an extent, Sean Monahan) haven’t been immune to tough times, either. Their lackluster play relative to their usual work is a cause for concern.

One might look at, say, Gaudreau’s RAPM chart from 2018-19 (via Evolving Hockey):

Then compare it to the slow start so far in 2019-20:

And start to wonder if there are deeper concerns than merely a star player experiencing a slump that also is extending to a big chunk of the team around him, one that came into 2019-20 with pretty high expectations.

That’s when things start to get a little bumpy. On Monday, The Athletic’s Darren Haynes goes as far as wonder: if it’s time for the Flames to trade Gaudreau (sub required)?

Amusingly, in arguing that the Flames waited too long to trade Jarome Iginla, Haynes uses basically the exact same phrasing I would deploy to talk Calgary off the ledge if there was any notion of trading the superstar winger.

Iginla’s situation remains a textbook example of the perils of listening to the heart, not the head, when it comes to the handling of star players on a team getting worse, not better, or underperforming and in need of a shake-up.

For those who actually need it, here’s why the Flames would be using anything but their heads in the hypothetical knee-jerk reaction of trading away Johnny Gaudreau.

1. Obvious buy-low situation for other teams

Any team pondering a rash decision with a player should do one almost-agonizingly obvious thing: look at their shooting percentage, and general luck.

Ding, ding: Gaudreau’s shooting percentage is just 7.8 so far in 2019-20, well below his career average of 12.5, and a far cry from last season’s 14.7. On-ice shooting percentage is a decent (but not perfect) quick-reference way to see if a playmaker’s passes aren’t resulting in as many goals as usual, and Gaudreau is cold there, too, with a nine-percent mark versus his career average of 10.6 percent.

Basically every sign (including PDO) makes this point: if this sustained for all of 2019-20, it would be easily the unluckiest in Gaudreau’s career. As we’ve learned from players ranging from Taylor Hall to Jeff Skinner, the best way to become a notoriously ridiculed GM is to trade someone when their value is at an all-time low.

2. The Flames’ overall luck has been bad, too.

In 2018-19, quite a few Flames enjoyed the best years of their careers, with Mark Giordano finally winning a Norris Trophy and Elias Lindholm loving life with Gaudreau and Monahan. The problem with career years is that, sometimes, you won’t be able to repeat them.

The truth about Calgary is likely somewhere between the red-hot run of the 2018-19 regular season and the ice-cold 2019-20 start.

The instinct might be to make a bold move to shake things up, but that’s exactly the type of situation that could lead to other teams taking advantage of your desperation.

3. Gaudreau is a steal

Thanks to bargains on other second-contract stars like Nathan MacKinnon (somehow $6.3M AAV through 2022-23), Johnny Gaudreau’s contract isn’t the biggest steal in the NHL. That said, Gaudreau carrying a $6.75M AAV through 2021-22 is still “maybe you should have a little talk with your agent” material.

At 26, Gaudreau remains deep in his prime, and at an attractively cost-controlled price. Giving up on that value because of a brief swoon is the sort of mistake that makes you an eternal — and, honestly, justified — punchline on social media.

4. Gaudreau is really popular

Flames GM Brad Treliving has been described as a “riverboat gambler,” but trading Gaudreau would probably be close to losing his deed in a bad bet than even losing his shirt.

Trading away Gaudreau wouldn’t just run the risk of being a bad hockey move and a bad bit of cap management. It would also be a dangerous PR gamble for a team that’s already dealing with some frustrated fans.

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Look, the truth is that the Flames might not be quite as potent as they thought they were. That’s a bummer, and it’s understandable that they might grasp for answers, but panicking would likely only make things worse — especially if that meant parting ways with Gaudreau.

Frankly, it would be a troubling sign if they’d even consider it.

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.

Capitals’ Hathaway suspended three games for spitting on Gudbranson

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The NHL announced that Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway has been suspended for three games thanks to his “spitting incident” involving Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson. The punishment was delivered by the league’s Hockey Operations department, not the Department of Player Safety.

It happened during the end of a pretty wild brawl between the Capitals and Ducks, leading to Hathaway being ejected. For what it’s worth, Hathaway said that he regretted spitting at Gudbranson after the game.

“Unfortunately, spit came out of my mouth after I got sucker punched and it went onto him,” Hathaway said. “It has no place. It was an emotional play by me. You don’t plan any of that stuff in your head, and it was a quick reaction and unfortunately the wrong one for me to a sucker punch.”

The Capitals face the Rangers on Wednesday, the Canucks on Saturday, and then the Panthers next Wednesday (Nov. 27) so Hathaway will not be eligible to return until a Nov. 29 home game against the Lightning. Here’s video of the incident:

Gudbranson might feel like the punishment is just.

“That’s about as low as you dig a pit, really,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a bad thing to do. It’s something you just don’t do in a game, and he did it.”

Do you agree with the three-game suspension? If not, what would be an appropriate punishment? It’s certainly tough to shake the notion that Milan Lucic‘s “sucker-punch” drew less of a suspension (two games) than spitting, especially when other after-the-whistle stuff like licking often goes virtually unpunished … but three games it is for Hathaway.

Being that it’s a shorter suspension, it doesn’t sound like Hathaway has a ton of recourse here, although maybe he can try to get some of the $24,193.53 back if he appealed?

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.

Surging Vrana might be capable of even bigger things for Capitals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From Alex Ovechkin for Washington to Artemi Panarin for New York, you’ll see plenty of firepower during Wednesday Night Hockey’s bout between the Capitals and Rangers. Even with Nicklas Backstrom sidelined for the game, I’m here to argue that you still might not see enough of one potential rising star: Jakub Vrana.

When you give Vrana’s 2019-20 stats a quick glance, they’re already impressive.

Not only does Vrana already have 10 goals scored in 23 games, but all 10 of them have come at even-strength, tying him for third in the NHL in that category alongside players like Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vrana’s former Capitals teammate Andre Burakovsky. His eight assists rounds out his numbers to 18 points in 23 games; over an 82-game pace, Vrana would author a 37-goal, 66-point season.

While he’s been riding some hot puck luck since 2018-19 with a 15.1 shooting percentage, the overwhelming message one gets from diving deeper into Vrana’s stats is that the Capitals should strongly consider finding more ways to get him on the ice.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Despite Vrana’s 18 points in 23 games, he’s only averaging 14:15 TOI per game, which is a career-high and slight uptick from last season’s average of 14:02. Beyond getting some bounces, Vrana’s breakthrough in simple counting stats can probably be chalked up to an increasingly itchy trigger finger. After peaking with 1.96 shots on goal per game last season, Vrana’s getting almost one extra puck on net per evening, averaging 2.78 SOG per game (64 SOG in 23 GP).

It’s unclear if you can derive that from playing a more confident game, getting decent reps with a tremendous playmaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or if perhaps someone in the Capitals organization gave Vrana a directive to shoot more. Either way, it’s working out quite nicely, as he’s a significant part of the Capitals’ early work as the NHL’s most dangerous offense at even-strength.

Again, though, I must ask for more.

Just about every number seems to point a neon flashing arrow at “More Vrana.” His heat map at Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockey Viz is, well, almost off the charts:

Wow.

Admittedly, it would be tough for Vrana to crack the Capitals’ top power play unit, and he’s getting some reps on the second unit (1:35 per game), but his all-around game makes me wonder if more PK work would be warranted.

It’s not as though Vrana is getting totally buried in the Capitals’ lineup, yet with Washington in a strong position (few teams enjoy the luxury of “Can we win the division again?” being one of their burning questions in November), I’d be tempted to see if Vrana would thrive in an even larger role.

And, hey, if all of that is boring … the skill is pretty obvious, too. Not everyone can pull off a Datsyukian shootout move, right?

Just saying.

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.

Can Oilers’ McDavid and Draisaitl keep up league-leading pace?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As seemingly stabilized as the San Jose Sharks seem, they drew an unenviable task for Tuesday’s game on NBCSN: contain the league’s most dynamic duo at their most dynamic.

When you look at the NHL’s scoring stats, it’s not even close: Leon Draisaitl (43 points) and Connor McDavid (40) tower over everyone else. Only three other players have even crossed thirty yet: still-remarkably-hot defenseman John Carlson (34), and the league’s other dynamic duo of David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand (both at 32).

Let’s dig into the ridiculous runs for both players.

McDavid soaring

We very well might be witnessing the hottest stretch of McDavid’s career.

While Draisaitl leads the NHL in points, McDavid’s on an especially torrid stretch lately. In an overtime loss to the Dallas Stars, he collected three assists, but before that, he generated a hat trick and three assists. Yes, that’s nine points in two games.

McDavid truly feels like a cheat code. If you’ve ever created a player in a sports video game and then felt guilty about how no one could ever be that good, well, McDavid is here to clear your conscience.

During these healthy non-rookie seasons, McDavid’s points have climbed each season: from 100 to 108 to 116 last season, with 41 goals in each of 2017-18 and 2018-19. McDavid’s 40 points in 22 games would translate to about 149 points over 82 contests, so what might cool him off?

[COVERAGE OF OILERS-SHARKS BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Injuries would be the most obvious worry, but aside from that freakish injury suffered against now-teammate Brandon Manning (that never stops amusing me, sorry), McDavid’s been sturdy, missing only four games since 2016-17.

A nearly two-point-per-game pace is asking a lot in the clutch-and-grabby NHL, and there are signs that McDavid’s playing a bit above even his standards. His shooting percentage this season (18.4) is higher than his career average (15). Most importantly for a playmaker like McDavid, his on-ice shooting percentage (16.9) is considerably higher than his career average (11.4).

While McDavid’s current pace is close to 150 points, safer bets might range from 120 (scoring at his career pace of 1.33 ppg over the remaining 60 games) to 130 (at last season’s 1.49 ppg pace) if McDavid can stay healthy. If anyone can keep his percentages this high over 82 games, it’s McDavid, though, so it will be fun to see where he finishes.

Because it’s fun to gawk, take a look at McDavid’s absurd heat map via Hockey Viz’s Micah Blake McCurdy:

Will Draisaitl dry up?

Leon Draisaitl is an even more fascinating example because of just how red-hot he’s been for a while now.

Last season seemed like it would present Draisaitl’s peak: 50 goals, 105 points, with a 21.6 shooting percentage. So far in 2019-20, he’s even hotter: 16 goals (15 of which, impressively, come at full strength), and 27 assists for a blistering 43 points in 22 games. His 2019-20 shooting percentage is even higher than last season, as he’s connecting at a ridiculous 22.5 percent.

Draisaitl’s on-ice shooting percentage (18.8) blows away his career average of 10.4, and also towers over last season’s touch-to-match 12.4 percent.

So … it’s especially clear that Draisaitl will cool down, but it’s also extremely difficult to say how much. After all, he’s been producing at this torrid pace now for 104 games between 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Either way, they’re lethal

It’s also worth mentioning that McDavid is 22 and Draisaitl is 24. Sometimes in sports, people fall into the trap of assuming that a young player will one day meet some imaginary standard of potential, but it’s easier to argue for someone improving when they’ve already produced results.

While it’s fair to ask bigger picture questions about keeping them together or trying to find better depth, it’s hard to argue with the synergy they’re forming right now.

Again, I expect them to cool off a bit, but they might still be the best one-two punch in the league even if the puck luck dries up. Consider that they’re the top two players in connecting on passes to the slot according to The Point Hockey, and that they’re dominant in expected goals, via Sean Tierney:

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Maybe a cold streak is coming, but with any luck, fans on NBCSN will get to see what makes Draisaitl and McDavid so special. It should be a delight to watch — unless you’re cheering for/playing for the Sharks.

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.