James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Why the Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[The Central Division might not give the Wild much of a choice.]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who might are in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.

Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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The Boston Bruins fell one win short of spoiling Boston sports fans with yet another championship, but as long as key players don’t age too poorly, there’s a strong chance that they’ll be a contender again in 2019-20.

Even with some deft cap management – David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand ranked first and second in a top 10 best contracts list from The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn (sub required) – the Bruins face a snug salary cap situation, both before 2019-20 begins and beyond.

Most immediately, they have already-star defenseman Charlie McAvoy and solid blueliner Brandon Carlo to deal with as RFAs. After re-signing Danton Heinen, things are getting pretty tight:

It’s easy to justify McAvoy as a $7M defenseman alone, so this is a challenge.

That said, the Bruins can force open some extra daylight. In projecting the Bruins’ 2019-20 lineup, The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa points out that, with David Backes‘ clause changing from no-movement to no-trade, the Bruins could enjoy mild cap relief if they sent Backes to the AHL.

It would indeed be mild, though, as it would save Boston a bit more than $1M, but every bit might count.

If they really want true breathing room, the Bruins should wrestle with the best ways to handle that full Backes $6M cap hit, which expires after 2020-21.

To be specific, Boston needs to think long and hard about bribing a rebuilding team like the Ottawa Senators or Detroit Red Wings to take on that burden, at the cost of picks and/or prospects from Boston. Would it be worth it to get rid of Backes’ contract even if it cost something similar to Toronto burning a first-round pick to get Patrick Marleau off of the books? That would sting, but let’s be honest: the Bruins certainly are planning for that first-rounder to be a mediocre pick, if not one at the end of 2020.

There’s actually an especially devious way to handle that.

The Bruins could make like a sweaty, flustered businessman and show their emptied pockets to Charlie McAvoy, thus keeping his cap hit down. The Sharks played that card brilliantly with Kevin Labanc, and it sure felt like something similar happened with Torey Krug on his current deal, as he was clearly worth more than $5.25M, even as early as June 2016.

After signing McAvoy (and to a lesser priority, Carlo), the Bruins then can truly ramp up their efforts to move the Backes deal, so that they can line up some of that Backes money to re-sign Krug, who is in line for a significant raise from $5.25M after his current contract expires following the 2019-20 season.

Ideally, for the Bruins, they could lock McAvoy to a bargain contract akin to that of Marchand and Pastrnak, as McAvoy is absolutely a star, and then eventually keep the sometimes-underrated Krug in the fold.

Maybe that means stomaching a painful price to get rid of Backes, and perhaps that means that Boston won’t be able to keep some nice pieces like Charlie Coyle and Carlo around much longer. The luxury of having $2.75M to spend on a quality backup/platoon goalie like Jaroslav Halak might run out soon, too. As dominant as the top line with Patrice Bergeron can be, the Bruins truly took off when the Coyles of the world were able to provide support. Boston might not enjoy that level of depth very long.

This management group already extended a competitive window that sure felt like it was closing toward the end of the Chiarelli era, though, and there’s room to work with to wedge it open even longer. Doing so might require some cleverness, and maybe swallowing some pride to get rid of that Backes mistake, though.

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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.

NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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.