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Spezza wants to be more than ‘good locker room guy’ for Stars

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Jason Spezza is unlikely to play like a $7.5 million guy for the Dallas Stars this season, but it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they did last season.

Spezza mixed with Ken Hitchcock about as well as wolves get along with sheep in 2017-18, seeing his ice time plummet from 16:10 minutes per game in 2016-17 to a pitiful 13 minutes per night. To put things mildly, Spezza’s numbers suffered, with just 26 points in 78 games. Excluding the 2012-13 lockout (when he generated five points in as many contests), you’d need to go as far back as Spezza’s rookie season to see such a poor point total, and Spezza managed his 21 points in just 33 games all the way back in 2002-03.

Waning confidence could be seen in a number of areas, including a 5.8 shooting percentage, easily a career-low and just the second time Spezza’s endured a sub-10 shooting percentage over 15 seasons.

Brutal stuff, right?

The good news is that his shooting percentage is almost certain to level out, and the even better news – for Spezza, if not the Stars as a whole – is that Jim Montgomery replaced Hitchcock as head coach. That said, at 35, you wonder how much Spezza really has left in the tank.

If nothing else, Spezza told Mike Heika of the Stars website that he has a “fire in his belly” after that miserable 2017-18 campaign. A mixture of pride and the motivation of a contract year should make it certain that, if Spezza has anything left, he’ll show it this season.

“I’m here to play,” Spezza said. “I’ve produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don’t want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I’m here to produce — that’s what I expect of myself.”

Amid struggles that could prompt an existential crisis in a less confident athlete, Spezza continued to succeed in the faceoff circle last season, a sneaky-impressive area of his game. The former Senators center won 55.8-percent of his draws in 2017-18, while his career mark is a strong 53.5.

Such successes weren’t lost on Montgomery, who told Heika that he expects Spezza to take more faceoffs in the defensive zone this season. (Spezza began 43.4-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season.)

That’s an interesting idea beyond leveraging Spezza’s ability to win draws.

Most obviously, it could open the door for Radek Faksa to enjoy more favorable opportunities. The stealth Selke candidate began just 33.4-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and one cannot help but wonder if Faksa could enjoy a Sean Couturier-like leap if his workload was relaxed to a substantial degree. The Stars’ top centers (Faksa, Spezza, and Tyler Seguin) were all pretty effective at winning faceoffs last season, which would hopefully inspire Dallas to focus more on landing advantageous matchups, rather than obsessing over who might win or lose a draw.

Of course, Spezza wasn’t talking about faceoff wins when he was discussing production; he wants to put up points and land another NHL gig after this contract year.

The veteran center truly stands as a crucial make-or-break player for the Stars, especially if Dallas continues to load up with a top-heavy first line of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov.

Through one preseason game, Spezza primarily lined up with Valeri Nichushkin (another Stars forward who could go either way, really) and Mattias Janmark. Via Natural Stat Trick, Janmark stood out as Spezza’s most common linemate last season, so we’ll see if that combination sticks even with coaching changes. You could do worse than Spezza with Janmark and Nichushkin, a trio that would have a lot to prove, even if Spezza’s in a very different phase of his career.

It’s important to remember that Spezza’s not that far removed from being the productive scorer he hopes to be. He generated 50 points in 2016-17, and that total came in 68 games. Before that, Spezza rattled off three consecutive seasons with at least 62 points.

Considering his age and the possibility that Faksa and others might push Spezza for power play reps and other opportunities, it might be too much to ask for Spezza to hit 60+ points in 2018-19. Despite that $7.5M clip, the Stars would probably be quite happy if the veteran landed in the 50 range, especially if he can juggle that with increased defensive duties.

That would make him “good in the room” and on the ice.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Will goalie be selected in first round of 2019 NHL Draft?

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As much as you need an elite center and a star defenseman, goalie remains the make-or-break single position in hockey. Unfortunately, it’s easier to herd cats than predict goaltending performances.

With that in mind, it’s not that shocking that the Marc-Andre Fleury/Rick DiPietro/Roberto Luongo era of goalies going high in drafts is no more. Instead, it’s increasingly common for there to be zero goalies selected in the first round of a draft. None went in 2018, for example, as the Rangers were the first team to select a netminder when they tabbed Olof Lindbom in the second round (39th overall).

American goalie prospect Spencer Knight recently admitted to NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce that he’s pictured becoming one of the rare recent goalies to go in the first round.

“You do think about it, and if I told you I didn’t I’d probably be lying,” Knight said “You do think about all the different ways it could go, but I think the biggest thing is to worry about the small things, the everyday things. It’s very cliché but it’s true. You do have to focus on one day at a time and enjoy the process because all these things only come around once. You only play in this (All-American Prospects Game) once, you only get drafted once.”

Here’s a quick glance at goalies who went in the first round since PHT began draft coverage in 2010.*

2017 – Jake Oettinger (26th pick)
2015 – Ilya Samsonov (22)
2012 – Andrei Vasilevskiy (19)
2010 – Jack Campbell (10), Mark Visentin (27)

* – If I happened to miss one, please note in the comments, email, or social media.

It’s too early to tell if the Dallas Stars will be glad they selected Oettinger (although, oof, they could have landed Eeli Tolvanen), and the same can be said regarding the Washington Capitals and Ilya Samsonov. The Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning do a solid job of shining a light on the highs and lows of drafting goalies with such prominent picks.

While it was refreshing to see Campbell earn a few nice starts with the Kings, the goalie hasn’t justified his draft status. That said, the Stars themselves haven’t had much luck finding answers in net, whether they’ve tried in other rounds, free agency, or via trades. Instead, they’ve sunk a ton of money into bad options, and the hope is that Ben Bishop can reverse that trend (and maybe hold down the fort while Oettinger develops?).

On the other hand, the Lightning knocked it out of the park with Vasilevskiy, who’s on the short list of hyper-promising young NHL goalies. It almost makes too much sense that Tampa Bay’s success in drafting Vasilevskiy allowed them to part ways with (wait for it) Ben Bishop.

Ultimately, there are only 31 starting jobs, and only 62 NHL goalie gigs including backups, aside from those rare stretches where three netminders make a roster.

/nods to J-F Berube.

There have been some fascinating, semi-recent studies regarding drafting goalies early, and the high risk-reward factor.

Back in 2016, TSN’s Travis Yost laid out one of the many arguments against drafting a goalie in the first round. Yost, like many others – including, clearly, NHL teams – notes that there’s simply an incredibly heavy opportunity cost with such an investment. That’s particularly true since many of the NHL’s standout goalies come later in the draft. Henrik Lundqvist and reigning Vezina winner Pekka Rinne went in the seventh and eighth round of their respective drafts, as just two prominent examples.

On the other hand, the payoff from finding a high-end goalie can be enormous. Hockey Graph’s Matt Cane summarized such thoughts following Yost’s post:

Drafting is an inexact science; there isn’t a team in professional sports that hasn’t whiffed badly on their selections. As a New York Giants fan who’s marinating in the poor choice of Saquon Barkley at second overall (mesmerizing talent, terrible value), going against the grain can hurt that much more.

You ultimately have to trust your scouts and your gut while making the decision, whether it be with Knight in 2019 or any other prospect.

It makes you wonder: which teams might want to take such a plunge next year? One could picture a team with aging goalies looking for answers (maybe the Senators if they do manage to trade for a first-rounder?) or teams that seem to be in perpetual pursuit of puckstoppers (the Hurricanes come to mind, in particular).

The smarter, studied route may be to accrue information by seeing goalies succeed overseas, in junior/college hockey, in the AHL, or even on another NHL teams.

Still, if you can identify a Vasilevskiy, you can really reap the benefits. That’s easier said than done, much like goaltending in general.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 should Sharks do with Joe Pavelski?

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Not that long ago, Joe Pavelski was the most pressing extension question for the San Jose Sharks. The acquisition of Erik Karlsson knocks Pavelski down a peg, yet CBA quirks might delay extension talks for the star defenseman, and Pavelski ranks as a crucial contract conundrum either way.

After all, Pavelski is San Jose’s captain. The Wisconsin-born forward has developed outstanding chemistry with the Sharks’ other big Joe (Thornton), and it shows in his goal totals; since 2011-12, Pavelski’s 214 goals rank fifth overall (edging Evgeni Malkin, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Kane).

On the other hand, it’s far from a no-brainer for the Sharks to lock Pavelski down, particularly if the forward – understandably – would demand some term.

It might sneak up on you to realize that Pavelski is already 34 years old. He’s about to enter a contract year for 2018-19, so he’d be 35 whenever his next deal kicks in during the 2019-20 season.

Given further context, it’s an even more challenging question. As much as Joe Thornton‘s Hall of Famer-caliber passing has made life easier for Pavelski, it’s worth noting that he’s not just scoring goals from “Ovechkin’s office.” Instead, Pavelski’s developed a world-class knack for tipping and deflecting pucks into the net, which often requires him to go to the “dirty areas” of the ice, which opens the door for dirty hits. So, it stands to mention that Pavelski could be an “old 35” once that contract comes around, and players don’t tend to become more durable with age.

The Sharks’ already-aging roster piles on even more context regarding risks surrounding a Pavelski contract extension.

Brent Burns is 33, and his $8 million cap hit could become worrisome as time goes along, as it doesn’t expire until after 2024-25. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is just about to begin a deal that carries a $7M AAV, and he’s locked up for one more season (through 2025-26).

Burns and “Pickles” are more obvious current-day red flags, yet other contracts get a little eyebrow-raising when you consider the learning curve. Logan Couture‘s 29, yet his eight-year ($8M cap hit) extension won’t kick in until 2019-20. He’ll be 30 once it does, and Couture’s commitment runs through 2026-27. Few goalies in Martin Jones‘ range (reliable, not quite elite) enjoy the sort of security he does, as the 28-year-old has six seasons remaining at $5.75M per year.

Add a possible extension for Erik Karlsson (already 28, will be 29 on May 31) to that mix, and especially worrisome types might go into a panic.

Now, don’t get this twisted; the Sharks are justified, in many ways, to go all-in. Even if they eventually foot the bill with an aging roster, not unlike their pals in Los Angeles.

All of those details illuminate how difficult the Pavelski decision could end up being.

With all of that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Pavelski’s agent Dan Plante told The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz (sub required) that there haven’t been any extension talks yet.

“Since there hasn’t been a whole lot of talks about a contract extension at all, I would say that they are lukewarm or tepid, at best,” Plante said. “It’s really kind of non-existent, so maybe non-existent is a better word.”

Plante indicates that Pavelski would prefer to stay in San Jose, amusingly telling Kurz that “he’s a Wisconsin kid, but he’s bled San Jose Sharks since the day that they drafted him.”

(If you too bleed San Jose Sharks, maybe call a doctor.)

Essentially, Sharks GM Doug Wilson can ponder the following avenues:

  • Trade him rather than losing him for nothing. This one is pretty self-explanatory. It’s somewhat tough to fathom that the win-now Sharks would trade their high-scoring captain during an all-in year.
  • Pavelski plays through the season, then the chips fall where they may. Note that Pavelski’s carrying an affordable $6M cap hit during the final year of his current contract.
  • Sign him to a substantial extension. Hey, the Sharks are already going for it, so why not roll the dice another time?

Really, the dream scenario would be that Pavelski accepts the same approach that fellow Joe-in-teal Thornton does with contracts, as “Jumbo Joe” has been content to sign one-year contracts lately. Of course, Thornton is 39, and his two short-term deals came amid questions about his health (one knee per contract, it seems). It would be a tough sell for Pavelski, whose deal carried that $6M cap hit from 2014-15 through 2018-19, not to mention a $4M cap hit during the stretch of 2010-11 to 2013-14.

Pavelski might feel like he’s owed a heartier commitment after ranking as a bargain for basically his an entire career, and justifiably so. Keeping him around might not be the best option for the Sharks, however, which explains the impasse.

What would you do regarding Pavelski if you were Wilson?

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Mike Green may miss start of Red Wings season with scary ailment

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Early word of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Green dealing with fatigue issues in the preseason seemed unusual, but it turns out there’s a rather frightening reason why he might be dealing with energy issues.

Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill announced that Green is sidelined indefinitely, as he saw an infectious disease specialist regarding  “a virus that attacked his liver,” according to Dana Wakiji of the Red Wings website.

“(Green’s) not available right now,” Blashill said, via Wakiji. “He’s got a virus that attacked his liver, so he’s seen an infectious disease person today and we should know more here in the next little bit. I don’t know how long he’s going to be out. I don’t know the totality of it.”

Scary stuff. (You can read more about viruses that affect the liver here.)

Green is no stranger to injury issues, including ailments that plagued him during his offensively dominant days with the Washington Capitals. Not long ago, Green spoke in positive terms about how he was feeling coming off of neck surgery.

This is unsettling news for a defenseman who’s already dealt with tough injury luck during his career. Here’s hoping that Green and the Red Wings take every precaution before he returns to the ice.

One silver lining is that, with Green sidelined, the Red Wings can open the door for some defensive prospects to get a longer look than they might have received under different circumstances. In particular, Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek stand out as blueliners who could really benefit from some additional opportunities, while Libor Sulak and Joe Hicketts should also be in the mix.

GM Ken Holland acknowledged as much while discussing Green’s health challenges, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free-Press.

“Now we have five D, and we are probably going to start with seven,” Holland said. “Now, how long is Mike Green out? Certainly it appears he is going to be out for a little period of time. So probably we are going to start with two of these defense prospects – either Sulak or Hicketts or Cholowski or Hronek.”

One might argue that the Red Wings should already be taking measures to skew in a younger direction on defense, anyway. Getting more intel on Sulak, Hicketts, Cholowski, and Hronek would give them a better idea regarding how soon they might be able to contribute, or if they even figure into future plans.

Consider the ages of the Red Wings more settled defensemen. Green is 32, Jonathan Ericsson is pretty broken down at 34, Trevor Daley is 34, and Niklas Kronwall‘s nearing the end of his career at 37. It’s plausible that Nick Jensen and Danny DeKeyser (both 28) will be in a decline and/or out of the picture by the time the Red Wings wade out of the darkness, too.

The Red Wings have made some significant progress toward a rebuild – the Tomas Tatar trade was wonderful, and they followed it up with shrewd picks at the 2018 NHL Draft – yet there still seem to be moments where they’re too stubborn to fully embrace the growing pains. Bringing Green back felt a little bit like that, as there’s a strong chance that a healthy Green would provide better immediate returns than a Cholowski or Hronek. But, realistically speaking, would the upside be that strong?

Either way, here’s hoping there will be happier news for Green soon.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins ponder Brassard at wing; best fit for Jack Johnson?

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While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).

Tinkering with Brassard

Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.

Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”

With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.

Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.

The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)

In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.

The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.

And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”

A formidable pairing

Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:

  • An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
  • Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”

The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.

That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.

Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool brings a lot of the data to the forefront:

One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)

Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:

Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.

The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.

For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.

For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.

Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.

***

As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.

When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.

In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.

Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last 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.