James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
NHL players considering retirement Marleau Thornton
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Which NHL players might be considering retirement?

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When the coronavirus outbreak started to ratchet up in mid-March, hockey fans received at least one bit of soothing news. It turns out Joe Thornton doesn’t rank among the NHL players who might be considering retirement as the season hangs in the balance.

TSN/The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that Thornton responded to a question about playing next season by texting back, “I have years to go!” If you’re like me, triumphant music might as well have been playing while you read that. (My choice: the “victory song” from Final Fantasy games.)

Check out LeBrun’s tweet. It’s been a while, so maybe you already saw it anyway, and could use a reason to smile?

Sweet, right?

A couple days later, The Athletic’s James Mirtle put together a thorough list of players who might have played in their final NHL games (sub required). I thought it might be useful to take a look at this group of aging veterans and wonder: should they have played their last NHL games? As we know, plenty of athletes don’t get to make the final call on retiring, instead being forced to fade from the glory because they couldn’t find any takers.

Forwards

Other aging forwards give Joe Thornton company when it comes to wanting to be back in 2020-21, and possibly beyond.

How many of them bring something to the table, though? Using Charting Hockey’s handy tableaus (which utilize Evolving Hockey’s data), here’s how some prominent aging forwards stack up in Goals Against Replacement:

NHL players considering retirement forwards GAR

 

Frankly, quite a few of these players should be of interest to someone, and I’d figure the biggest stumbling block might be fit. Would these players only suit up for a contender?

If there’s some flexibility, then many would make a lot of sense. There were some rumblings that the Sharks found a taker for Patrick Marleau because he’s still a pretty good skater, while a more plodding Joe Thornton made for a tougher fit. Similarly, some coaches will be more willing to overlook Ilya Kovalchuk’s defensive lapses than others. The Maple Leafs made an analytics-savvy move in adding Jason Spezza, and he remains an underrated option. Especially since he’s probably not going to break the bank. Justin Williams is likely poised to call his shot again, and justifiably so.

Someone like Mikko Koivu figures to be trickier. Koivu seemed to indicate that he wasn’t OK with being traded from the Wild, so if he remains Wild-or-nothing, that could get awkward.

The Stars made a reasonably low-risk gamble on Corey Perry, but that didn’t really seem to work out. Perry and (possibly AHL-bound) Justin Abdelkader might not have the choice.

Defensemen

Let’s apply the same Charting Hockey/Evolving Hockey GAR experiment to some defensemen who might be teetering:

NHL players considering retirement defensemen GAR

You can break down forwards into “surprisingly useful,” “some warts but probably worth a roster spot,” and then “broken down guys who’d live off of name recognition.”

An uncomfortable number of the defensemen above (Brent Seabrook, Roman Polak, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley) could fall close to that broken down category. At least if you’re like me, and you hope Jay Bouwmeester bows out gracefully rather than risking his health after that scare.

Zdeno Chara stands tall as a “play as long as you want” option. Dan Hamhuis and Ron Hainsey mix the good with the bad, and could probably be decent options for coaches who simply demand veteran presences.

But the forward group is far richer, it seems.

Goalies

This post largely focuses on to-the-point analysis. Is this player good enough? Would they be willing to make some compromises to sign with a team?

But what about the human factor? This coronavirus pause is allowing players to spend more time with their families. For some, that might mean too much of a good thing/fodder for making a chicken coop. Yet, goalies like Ryan Miller might get another nudge out the door.

Back in June 2019, Ryan Miller explained why he came back to the Ducks. In doing so, Miller relayed this precious and heartbreaking detail about his then-4-year-old son Bodhi Miller pleading with him to retire.

“It’s not like he’s a little bit older and understands the full weight of his words,” Miller said to The Athletic’s Josh Cooper (sub required). “He was like, ‘If you aren’t doing that, you could be playing superheroes with me every single day.’”

(Personally, I wonder if Ryan Miller will eventually start playing “Nightcrawlers” with his son. It’s an imagination-based game, you see.)

Miller updated to Mirtle around March 19 that it’s “too soon — can’t even process what’s happening.”

Veteran goalies present their own brand of tough calls. How many of these goalies would be willing to play as backups, or as the “1B” in platoons.

  • Miller adjusted to life as such, but could Henrik Lundqvist accept a lesser role with a different team if the Rangers buy him out?
  • Craig Anderson suffered through multiple rough seasons after once developing a strange knack for rotating elite and “eh” seasons.
  • Jimmy Howard is no spring chicken at 36. After a sneaky-strong 2018-19 season, his play dropped significantly. He’d likely need to take significant role and pay decreases to stay in the NHL.
  • Mike Smith warrants consideration, too. He’s struggled for two seasons now, and is 38.

Closing thoughts on NHL players considering retirement

While family time might nudge some toward retirement, added rest — particularly if play doesn’t resume this season and playoffs – could also revitalize certain veterans.

Overall, it’s a lot to think about regarding NHL players who might be considering retirement. Which players should lean toward hanging their skates up, and who should NHL teams convince to stick around? This list isn’t comprehensive, so bring up names of your own.

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.

Avalanche announce that a second player tested positive for COVID-19

Second Avalanche player tested positive for COVID-19
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The Colorado Avalanche announced that a second player tested positive for COVID-19. In each case, the Avalanche did not name the player who tested positive for the coronavirus. The first instance was announced on Thursday.

This brings the announced total of NHL players testing positive for COVID-19 to four, as the Ottawa Senators reported the first two cases. (The second Senators case was announced about one week ago.)

Avalanche release statement on second player testing positive for COVID-19

Here is the Avalanche’s statement regarding a second player testing positive for COVID-19:

The Colorado Avalanche were advised late last night that a second player has tested positive for COVID-19. The player is in self-isolation. All other Avalanche players, staff and others who might have had close contact with the player have been informed and remain isolated as per prior League direction and are monitoring their health and will be in touch with Club medical staff as necessary. No other Avalanche player or staff member has shown symptoms at this time.

As you can see, the Avalanche received word about this second positive test late on Friday night.

They also state that no other player or staff member has shown symptoms at this time. That’s a key caveat, because as you may know, COVID-19 symptoms sometimes don’t surface for as many as two weeks after infection.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 leads to many hockey pauses, cancellations, postponements:

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.

Long-term outlook for Blackhawks: salary cap, prospects, and more

Blackhawks long-term outlook DeBrincat Toews Kane
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Pending Free Agents

  • Corey Crawford (UFA)
  • Drake Caggiula (RFA)
  • Dominik Kubalik (RFA)
  • Dylan Strome (RFA)
  • Malcolm Subban (RFA)
  • Slater Koekkoek (RFA)
  • Matthew Highmore (RFA)

The Core

Both at age 31 with matching $10.5 million cap hits through 2022-23, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain the headliners of the Blackhawks’ core.

While Toews in particular isn’t what he once was, the biggest problem is shaky support.

Duncan Keith is far removed from his prime at age 36, yet his contract ($5.54 through 2022-23) lingers. Quite a bit of this structure has broken down, to the point that it would be preferable for both Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw to stay planted on LTIR.

Credit Stan Bowman with trying to improve a shabby defense. Unfortunately, Bowman whiffed with Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy, and Calvin De Haan to varying degrees. Those three contracts stay on the books through 2021-22.

To Bowman’s credit, he’s experienced significant successes finding forward talent, sometimes off the beaten path. While the Blackhawks galaxy-brained themselves out of Artemi Panarin, they locked up Alex DeBrincat to a team-friendly extension.

One key question remains: can the Blackhawks find the cash to re-sign Corey Crawford? Actually, that folds into other questions. Being that Crawford is 35, should they?

Also, will Dominik Kubalik and/or Dylan Strome become core members, or stay in limbo with “bridge” deals. Can Alex Nylander cement himself? The supporting cast continues to go through auditions as if they’re in Chicago’s Broadway.

Long-Term Needs for Blackhawks

The Blackhawks face plenty of long-term needs.

Still, sometimes the biggest needs go deeper than “scoring depth” and “some actual, above-average NHL defensemen.” The Blackhawks organization needs to let go of the past, even if it means some extra suffering in the present. Otherwise, the future could be plagued by half-measures.

It would be understandable if the Blackhawks struck a short-term deal with Corey Crawford. He quietly put together a surprisingly strong 2019-20, particularly down the stretch.

Yet, how many times should Chicago really go to that nostalgia well? (To say nothing of how tough it might be to fit Crawford under the cap, as Mark Lazerus discussed here [sub required].)

This team needs more difference-makers. Adam Boqvist and other prospects figure to boost the competence of Chicago’s crummy defense, but how much?

Ultimately, the Blackhawks need to add “blue chip” talent, and hope that Boqvist, Kirby Dach, and others fall in that category. By trying to enjoy the best of both worlds of competing while getting some young talent, Chicago risks falling short of both marks. They’ve seemingly accrued good-but-not-great talent, and were moderately competitive but not legitimate contenders.

Pull off the Band-Aid already.

Long-Term Strengths for Blackhawks

As mentioned with Panarin and DeBrincat, the Blackhawks have shown some ability to unearth talent even when they didn’t have no-brainer picks like they did with Kane and Toews. (Panarin was a Euro free agent, DeBrincat went 39th overall in 2016). Dominik Kubalik looks like he could be the latest hidden gem.

Such successes have been a bit of a double-edged sword, as referenced in the long-term needs section. By finding ways to be semi-competitive, the Blackhawks have sometimes added good where a “tank” season may have provided great.

Still, there’s decent talent to work with. DeBrincat, Strome, Kubalik, and maybe Nylander can help on offense. Dach’s development is crucial.

Boqvist ranks as vital on defense, too, but he’s not alone. In ranking Chicago’s prospect pool 12th overall (sub required), The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler frequently listed defensemen. Wheeler highlighted Ian Mitchell almost as much as Boqvist, so help could be coming there. Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed Chicago’s under-23 core at a respectable 13th, so it’s not as if there’s nothing beyond Kane and Toews.

Lately, “almost” has been in painful supply for Chicago. An optimist might squint and see how things could break the Blackhawks’ way, but improving this long-term outlook will require more long-term thinking.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
2019-20 season summary
Surprises and disappointments

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.

Chicago Blackhawks: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Blackhawks surprises and disappointments Kubalik Crawford
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Putrid power play spoils special teams

Yes, the Blackhawks aren’t the dynastic team they once were. Their defense, in particular, just can’t keep up like it used to.

But there’s still some serious scoring skill on this roster, and it’s not just the obvious in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks clearly nabbed a steal in Alex DeBrincat, while Dylan Strome, Brandon Saad, Dominik Kubalik and others give Chicago strong four-forward options on the PP.

Yet, for whatever reason, the Blackhawks’ power play simply didn’t click in 2019-20.

The Blackhawks received 217 power-play opportunities, the eighth-highest total in the NHL. Chicago squandered far too many of those chances, managing 33 PPG (tied for 23rd in NHL) and 15.2 success rate (28th). The Blackhawks also gave up eight shorthanded goals, tied for seventh-most in the league.

Chicago sits at a -6 goal differential this season, and can chalk that up to its punchless power play, as their PK was pretty effective. (It just wasn’t good enough to make up for a poor power play.)

Blackhawks goaltending was both a pleasant surprise and an indirect disappointment

Ever since the Blackhawks collapsed from contention, the modified strategy turned to “outscoring their problems.”

Failing on the power play was disappointing in that regard, and it also feels like it contributed to the Blackhawks squandering strong goaltending in 2019-20.

After his surprising free agent departure from the Islanders, Robin Lehner barely missed a beat for Chicago. He managed a .918 save percentage in 33 games before being shipped to the Golden Knights. Considering Chicago’s defense, a .918 mark with the Blackhawks is almost as impressive as his .930 in Barry Trotz’s nurturing defensive system.

Interestingly, Corey Crawford nearly matched Lehner.

Such strong play slipped under the radar, and it’s easy to understand why. Since Jan. 1, Crawford managed merely a 10-9-1 record in 20 games … while generating a fantastic .928 save percentage. Overall, Crawford sits at .917 for 2019-20, just a stride behind Lehner.

The Blackhawks receiving such strong goaltending from one of Lehner or Crawford wouldn’t have been surprising, but both? Yeah, that should count among the surprises for the Blackhawks. At the same time, failing to take advantage of that goaltending edge ranks among their biggest disappointments.

(Deciding to trade Robin Lehner opens up a whole other discussion.)

Kubalik among positive surprises, DeBrincat among disappointments for Blackhawks

Predictably enough, Kane (84 points) and Toews (60) topped Chicago’s scorers in 2019-20. I’m not sure even Dominik Kubalik expected to rank third for the Blackhawks, though.

With 30 goals and 46 points in 68 games, the 24-year-old made a stunning jump from the Swiss league. While Kubalik did not go undrafted, he only barely avoided such a fate .(Los Angeles chose Kubalik 191st overall in 2013.)

Yes, expect Kubalik to cool off next season. Puck luck certainly aided Kubalik on his way to 30 goals, as his shooting percentage was at 19.1.

All of those caveats aside, Kubalik managed strong production out of nowhere, especially considering limited ice time overall. (Kubalik averaged 14:22 per game, although Chicago wisely bumped his deployment up as 2019-20 progressed).

DeBrincat’s regression (45 points, fourth on team) ranks as one of the Blackhawks’ biggest disappointments, however. Blackhawks fans should still look at his extension as a likely bargain, but this was a tough year. At minimum, expect DeBrincat to enjoy more luck, as his shooting percentage was at a meager 8.7 this season.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
2019-20 season summary

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.

2020 NHL Draft, Combine, Awards have been postponed

2020 NHL Draft postponed Combine Awards
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While the 2019-20 season remains on “pause,” the NHL announced that the 2020 NHL Draft, Combine, and Awards have all been postponed.

The league explains that the “location, timing, and format” of the 2020 NHL Draft (and corresponding lottery) will be announced once details have been finalized. This makes sense, as The Athletic’s Craig Custance reports that the league and team executives are battering around different ideas about how to handle the lottery (sub required).

(Sadly, Custance’s report also mostly shoots down the most-fun ideas, like a tournament among cellar dwellers to decide who gets the top pick. Perhaps that would be too exciting?)

The Combine was originally set for June 1-6 in Buffalo, the awards ceremony was going to take place in Las Vegas once again on June 18, while the 2020 NHL Draft was originally set for June 26-27 in Montreal.

If the NHL parallels other sports leagues, these events will likely be handled mostly online and in scaled-down formats, but we’ll wait and see.

Lamenting the Draft, Combine, Awards being postponed

Those looking for the biggest losers of this announcement will focus on:

  • Scouts, and other people who want to know if someone can or cannot do pull-ups.
  • People who love to laugh at awkward Combine photos, assuming that sweaty event doesn’t happen at all.

Actually, quick question. Which genre of Combine photo is more amusing? Do you rate the various funny faces while lifting shots the highest?

NHL Draft Lottery postponed no Combine lifting faces Lias Andersson
Sorry, Lias Andersson. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

… Or those V02 tests from earlier Combines, where the shenanigans went from cheeky to cruel once they got rid of those masks? (Waits for bad Bane impressions.)

NHL Draft Lottery postponed no Combine Bane Leon Draisaitl
Sorry, too, to Leon Draisaitl (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Actually, the answer is probably c) wild hockey hair photos.

NHL Draft Lottery postponed no Combine Timothy Liljegren
Timothy Liljegren somehow not touching one of those static energy machines at a science museum (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
  • Also losing: anyone wondering if Kenan Thompson would be back for another strong Awards performance. Would his rivalry with the Lightning have continued? We may never know.

Anyway, we still await bigger announcements regarding the 2019-20 NHL season, but now we know that the Draft, Combine, and Awards will be postponed. (Again, it’s fair to wonder how the Combine can really function. Rigorous workouts on Skype or Zoom? I’m running out of streaming platforms here, gang.)

Let’s be honest, shutting down the Awards in Vegas was kind of a no-brainer for public health, if nothing else. Trust me on that one.

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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.