James O'Brien

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

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.

Los Angeles Kings at 2020 NHL Draft: Byfield or Stutzle with second pick?

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Thanks to the very zany (and very NHL) draft lottery, we don’t know which team will get to draft Alexis Lafreniere first overall. What about picks 2-8, though? PHT will break down those picks one by one, aside from the Senators and their two selections. Let’s start with the second pick, then: what should the Kings do with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft?

For many, the debate boils down to Quinton Byfield or Tim Stutzle. Let’s break down, and also ponder more elaborate ideas (that are probably pretty unlikely).

Kings head into 2020 NHL Draft with a top system already — and some quality centers

Before we dive into Byfield vs. Stutzle, it’s worth noting that they’ll be adding to the foundation of the Kings’ rebuild, rather than starting it.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler calls this an embarrassment of riches for the Kings (sub required). Wheeler noted that some ranked Los Angeles’ farm system first overall before they traded for Tyler Madden, let alone before they can add Byfield or Stutzle.

There are some concerned that the Kings might compile too much of a good thing, as they’re center-heavy among their top prospects. Kings GM Rob Blake didn’t seem concerned about adding a center to a group that includes Alex Turcotte, Rasmus Kupari, and Gabriel Vilardi, though.

“No,” Blake told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. “You mention those three, we’ll take four centers like that.”

Frankly, much of the “too many centers” talk seems silly to me.

For one thing, the game is trending more toward players rotating positioning. Even to the point where defensemen and forwards might swap spots depending upon certain circumstances.

Beyond that, we see prospects involved in so many trades that it often seems silly to overthink going for anyone but the “best player available.” That said, we’ll touch on some alternative ideas if the Kings want to avoid too many cooks/centers.

Case for Kings taking Byfield over Stutzle with No. 2 pick of 2020 NHL Draft

After observing how NHL teams fawn over size for years, the reflex might be to roll your eyes about Byfield. Until you realize that Byfield isn’t just a Huge Hockey Human; he’s also put up fantastic numbers during his hockey career.

Byfield produced 82 points (including 32 goals) in 45 games in the OHL last season. That 1.82 PPG pace matches not just fellow top prospect Cole Perfetti, it’s also not far behind the likes of Matthew Tkachuk (1.88 PPG in 2015-16).

Byfield isn’t just big, he’s also fast and skilled. Combining those types of factors inspire lofty comparisons to the likes of Evgeni Malkin or his possible Kings teammate Anze Kopitar.

But most of all, it’s a projection based on potential. Not only his Byfield huge (listed at times at 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5), he might get a little bigger. The 17-year-old won’t turn 18 until Aug. 19. Several months might not seem like much, but this is the age range where players can make big leaps.

If for some reason Byfield couldn’t adapt to playing wing if needed … is that really that big of a concern? My guess is others will be trying to earn spots as his wingers, not the other way around.

The closest thing to a consensus I’ve found calls for the Kings to select Byfield at No. 2, rather than Stutzle.

Colin Cudmore compiled an expected range of mock drafts that generally favored Byfield at No. 2, as did PHT’s collection of mock drafts from before the lottery.

The case for Stutzle over Byfield for the Kings at No. 2

But it sounds like things are pretty close. You could joke that Stutzle is closing in on Byfield as if he was in a race, but scouting reports indicate that Byfield can put on the burners, too.

In a great Byfield vs. Stutzle comparison, Prospect Report’s Ben Misfeldt stated that while he believes Byfield reaches a faster “top speed,” Stutzle sets him apart from others with his agility and ability to accelerate.

Stutzle might be more NHL-ready than Byfield. The 18-year-old showed that he could keep up in DEL (Germany’s top hockey league), generating 34 points in 41 games for the Mannheim Eagles.

“They are both skilled,” An anonymous executive said of Byfield and Stutzle, according to Lisa Dillman of The Athletic (sub required). “Stutzle is just more polished at this point but it’s also hard to find 6-foot-5, 230-pound centermen that can produce.”

In a league shifting more toward skating and speed, could Stutzle be the better pick for the Kings than Byfield? Some lean that way.

Unlikely, but should Kings trade the No. 2 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft?

As stated, it doesn’t seem like the Kings would trade the second overall pick. You can certainly rule out the rebuilding Kings from trading the No. 2 pick for an immediate roster player.

While Alexis Lafreniere seems like a more seamless addition as a winger, it’s also tough to imagine the Kings trading up to get the top selection.

But what about trading down?

As Wheeler and others have noted, the Kings’ biggest prospect needs revolve around defense. Theoretically, the Kings could move that No. 2 pick to slide a little lower, get another pick, and get the player they actually want. What if they view someone like Jamie Drysdale or Jake Sanderson as the player they need? Mock drafts and prospect rankings come in all over the place for those two, so the Kings could view it as feasible to get one or both of them later.

Granted, it’s unlikely for the Kings to land, say, the sixth pick from the Ducks. But what if the Red Wings (fourth overall) or someone else would pay fairly big for the No. 2 pick? It’s at least worth considering.

Not that I’d do it, mind you.

So, what should the Kings do with No. 2?

The Kings have a long time to make this decision. Maybe too much time.

That gives them opportunities to study tape and stats on Byfield and Stutzle. Perhaps they’d even soul search about that unlikely trading down idea, too.

But, if I were running the show? I’d probably try to keep it simple and just take Byfield. Luckily for the fans of all 31 NHL teams, I’m not making those calls, though. What do you think the Kings should do with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft?

More 2020 NHL Draft coverage from PHT

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.

Rested Phil Kessel thinks he can get back on track as Coyotes await NHL return

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By just about any measure, 2019-20 marked a disappointing debut season for Phil Kessel with the Arizona Coyotes. Kessel acknowledged his “tough year,” but believes that he can bounce back as an NHL return looms.

“Obviously I had a tough year,” Kessel told Alex Kinkopf of the Coyotes website. “I think it’s probably the most injuries I’ve had in a year, but that’s no excuse, right? It’s one of those years, and obviously I’m going to look to never have that again. I’ve never had a year like that.”

Kessel pointed to the pandemic pause, saying that his body “feels good” and that he’s rested.

Of course, just about any returning player probably expects to rebound from a bad season. Especially a driven one like Kessel, a player who’s reached considerable heights — both individually, and by helping the Penguins win two Stanley Cups.

But the question is: does Kessel have the ability to rebound after a 14-goal, 38-point letdown?

Kessel thinks he can bounce back, but he needs a rebound from beyond his Coyotes debut

The more interesting question is: can Kessel regain a form from longer ago?

Yes, Kessel still produced even as things soured with the Penguins (Evgeni Malkin, or otherwise). You can look at point-per-game production in 2018-19 (82 points in as many games) and even better 2017-18 numbers and think that Kessel was at his peak.

But the criticisms that once unfairly dogged Kessel caught up to him quite a while before Kessel joined the Desert Dogs. Plenty of metrics indicated that Kessel’s defensive game nullified his offense. Depending upon what you weigh and who you ask, some viewed him as a net negative toward the end of his Penguins days:

Really, the defensive criticisms of Kessel have frequently been warranted — it’s just that the tenor’s been overly harsh. Attribute it to advancing age at 32 or whatever else, but Kessel at some point declined from “worth the trouble” to “not nearly productive enough to look away” during the past few seasons.

Pandemic pause could negate (some of the) possible downside of that “ironman” streak

But one interesting consideration is: maybe Kessel has been playing at less than 100 percent for quite often?

Consider the lengths Keith Yandle has gone to maintain his league-leading active games played streak of 866 games. Kessel is right behind Yandle with an 844-game “ironman” streak of his own. Perhaps Kessel — a perceived stubborn player — has sometimes played when he shouldn’t have?

This pandemic pause gave Kessel no choice but to be more rested. Or at least not to play professional hockey.

There’s absolutely a chance that such a break would be bad for a professional athlete. Some rely on playing games and practicing to stay in shape, rather than supplementing with training.

Yet, if you want to be optimistic about Kessel returning to form, then the break is a legitimate reason to focus on. Just realize that even the “best” Kessel will probably take something from the table — you just have to hope he brings more than he takes away.

If nothing else, it would be fun to watch Kessel if he got a new lease on life with the Coyotes, both against the Predators during the Qualifying Round and possibly beyond.

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 remembers video games: Sony made a surprisingly long series of hockey/NHL games

via Sony/989 Studios/Wikipedia
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Every week, PHT will spotlight hockey video games you might not have heard of, ones you fondly recall, and ones we’d all like to forget. This time around, we’ll look back at the surprisingly sprawling run of hockey video games from Sony.

When it comes to lamenting old hockey video games, we look back fondly on arcade-style games or honest attempts at sims, and often wish for more. Even with a game like “Hit the Ice,” which was ported in many different ways, there wasn’t really a sequel. But from “ESPN National Hockey Night” to the “NHL FaceOff” games down to “Gretzky NHL” titles, you can’t say that Sony didn’t take enough kicks at the can to make hockey video games.

Zooming out, Sony pumped out a really staggering legacy of … well, largely hockey forgettable video games.

The sheer volume of those titles means we won’t go into too much depth on any given title. Instead, let’s ponder the twists and turns, from different consoles, to brands, to killing 99 time.

Sony’s hockey video games begin before Sony consoles with “ESPN National Hockey Night.”

Released on 16-bit consoles (Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo), Sega CD, and computers in late 1994, Sony Imagesoft put out what would be far from the last hockey video game with ESPN branding. It seemed like a pretty ambitious title for its era. Though maybe I’m an easy mark because of that sweet ESPN hockey theme kicking this video off:

And also FMV Bill Clement!

Bill Clement in "ESPN National Hockey Night" Sega Genesis
via Sony/YouTube

Alas, this title began a trend. While Sony hockey video games sometimes experienced big changes and displayed varying levels of ambition, they rarely made much of a mark. Most of these titles were either met with a shoulder shrug, or during bad times, a grimace.

Sony transitions to “NHL FaceOff” series on Playstation, then Playstation 2

If you grumble at there only being one “Mutant League Hockey” game, or only a few “NHL Hitz” titles, then you might furrow your brow at just how long-lasting “NHL FaceOff” existed — even ignoring the pivots from Sony before and after “NHL FaceOff.”

Beginning in 1995, Sony pumped out the “NHL FaceOff” titles alongside other sports series. Frankly, one of my lasting memories of Sony’s sports titles was the “NFL GameDay” intro song, which for some reason is etched into my brain:

Early on in the “NHL FaceOff” series, you could see some pretty significant jumps in graphics. This came at a time when video game developers were still wrestling with the jump from 2D to 3D, and sports video games were not immune to such challenges. Consider the leaps from the first title in 1995 to the 1998 edition (“NHL FaceOff ’99”):

Top Left: “NHL FaceOff”; Bottom Left: ’97 edition; Top Right: ’98 edition; Bottom Right: ’99 Edition (via Sony/989 Studios/YouTube screens)

It turns out that EA Sports’ “NHL” series isn’t the first instance where a hockey video game presentation went from featuring ESPN and/or Bill Clement to NBC’s own Mike “Doc” Emrick. Emrick ended up being a fixture for the series, alongside Darren Pang, even once the “FaceOff” games transitioned to their next bit of packaging.

Again, the various studios that worked on the series definitely tried things. Enjoy, for instance, 989 Sports “made by the pros, played by the pros” video featuring 1) Warren Sapp, 2) Vin Scully(!), and 3) Scotty Bowman (!!).

There were even foot-in-the-crease reviews in “NHL FaceOff 2000.”

NHL FaceOff screen, Sony hockey video games NHL
via Sony/989 Studios/YouTube

… And this beautiful visage of Mike Modano.

Modano NHL FaceOff Sony hockey video games
via Sony/989 Studios/YouTube

The series truly loses its way

While the first “NHL FaceOff” celebrated hockey on the Playstation’s first iteration, the next console jump might explain why an OK-to-good series went sideways. Starting with “NHL FaceOff 2001,” the series transitioned to the Playstation 2. (That 2001 edition appeared on both Playstation 1 and 2.) Things were bumpy enough that the 2002 edition ended up being canceled. (According to the series’ Wikipedia page, Luc Robitaille was supposed to be the cover star.)

The last in the series was “NHL FaceOff 2003,” initially published in 2002. (NHL seasons spanning parts of two years often makes these titles feel a little confusing, right?)

The 2003 version didn’t get the series back on track. That said, the little in-game “previews” were a mix of pretty nifty and so-bad-it’s-good.

Overall, the “NHL FaceOff” series enjoyed a long run even if you ignore the other Sony-related hockey video game titles, releasing from 1995-2002 (with one year off, which really feels true to the sport’s era of lockouts).

Just like “ESPN National Hockey Night” made way for “NHL FaceOff,” Sony’s titles would get new life once more in a different wrapper.

Sony puts out a couple hockey video games with Wayne Gretzky involved

Sony pivoted from “NHL FaceOff” titles to “Gretzky NHL 2005” and a 2006 version on Playstation 2.  As Alex Navarro noted at Gamespot, the Sony Gretzky titles mainly distinguished themselves as Sony hockey video games that weren’t terrible.

Navarro also pointed out that Sony revived the series under that Gretzky NHL title during a lockout. If that didn’t set the table for a letdown, both EA’s “NHL” titles and the “NHL 2K” series attracted far more attention from sim-minded hockey gamers. It’s not particularly surprising that the titles were met with a general “meh.”

That said, the Gretzky titles were also ported to Sony’s handheld PSP system, and seemed to fare reasonably well.

Being that EA largely ignores handhelds such as the Nintendo Switch — aside from maybe one release of a “FIFA” — it’s a bummer that the Gretzky/”NHL FaceOff” series couldn’t have pivoted to that format. Being able to play a pretty good, NHL-licensed hockey game on a plane would have been cool right up until the mere thought of air travel became deeply terrifying.

I also wonder if “Gretzky NHL 2005/2006” should have gone full-arcade. Beyond evoking the pretty fun Nintendo 64-era Gretzky games, you’d lean into something that could make it stand out. The 2006 edition of the game had a feature where you could basically … summon Gretzky to help you win? Bonkers, sure, but what if it was the focus of development rather than a feature?

Wayne Gretzky representing a hockey video game series’ answer to the obnoxious blue shell in Mario Kart? I don’t hate it.

Again, a rather startling series of Sony hockey video games

OK, so let’s consider the timeline of Sony hockey video games one more time. Do note that it’s possible something will be left out because there really were so many of them. (Share in the comments if you notice something. Maybe there was an off-shoot inside an off-shoot wrapped in bacon and enigmas?)

  • “ESPN National Hockey Night” (Various 16-bit consoles/PC, released in 1994)
  • “NHL FaceOff through NHL FaceOff 2000” (Playstation, released  each year from 1995-1999)
  • Consider “NHL FaceOff 2001” a break in the trend because it was released on two consoles. (Playstation 1 and 2, released in 2000)
  • … The process of making one on each console might explain why “NHL FaceOff 2002” got canceled for PS2.
  • “NHL FaceOff 2003” (Playstation 2, released in 2002.)
  • “Gretzky NHL 2005” (Playstation 2, released in 2004; PSP version released in 2005)
  • “Gretzky NHL 2006” (Playstation 2, released in September 2005; PSP version released in October 2005)

Sony produced one heck of a run of … bad or OK hockey video games. They might have challenged the limits of Michael Scott’s favorite Gretzky quote in doing so. Today, they mainly focus on baseball with the generally well-received “MLB The Show” series.

As enticing as variety can be, Sony was probably smart in moving away from hockey/NHL video games.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

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.