2019 NHL free agency

Byfuglien-sized surprises, disappointments for Winnipeg Jets

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 Winnipeg Jets.

Hellebuyck surprises with heck of a season for Jets

Depending on your interpretation of “most valuable player,” you can make a strong argument that Connor Hellebuyck deserves the Hart Trophy, not just the Vezina.

With injuries and the absence of Dustin Byfuglien dealing huge blows to the Jets’ defense, it’s truly remarkable that Winnipeg entered the pause in playoff position. To that, I offer a simple remark: it’s mainly because of Hellebuyck.

Hellebuyck managed a 31-21-5 record, but of course, it was about more than that. For one thing, you can break down Hellebuyck’s .922 save percentage compared to backup Laurent Brossoit‘s .895.

When you factor in the leaky Jets defense in front of him, Hellebuyck really shines.

Looking at Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Against Average stat, Hellebuyck (22.40) only trails Tuukka Rask (22.51). Anton Khudobin sits in distant third at 17.75, while Darcy Kuemper (16.65) is the only other goalie who reached 14+.

Hellebuyck saved a lot of goals. He saved the Jets’ bacon.

If you choose MVPs based on the most indispensible player of a season, you’d probably pick Hellebuyck.

It’s not shocking that Hellebuyck ended up playing well, but carrying the Jets on his shoulders ranks as one of the bigger surprises of the season.

Neal Pionk > Jacob Trouba?

People understood that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had to trade Trouba’s rights. While one can only wonder if there was a better way to settle the situation, that moment passed.

Even so, plenty of people scoffed at Pionk being part of the return. Yes, Pionk scored a mind-blowing goal for the Rangers, and showed some scoring skill. But just about every other metric pointed to Pionk being … pretty bad.

Well, the Jets certainly can puff their chests out, because Pionk’s been crucial to their defense.

Now, it’s probably still true that you don’t necessarily want Pionk to be featured this much. An ideal blueline probably won’t lean on Pionk for a team-leading 23:23 per night. Sometimes things aren’t ideal, though. In reality, Pionk delivered incredible value for Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, Trouba looks like an $8M mistake for the Rangers. Pionk’s younger and cheaper than Trouba, and the Jets also nabbed a first-rounder in the deal. It’s remarkable just how similar Pionk and Trouba come across in this even-strength RAPM comparison chart via Evolving Hockey:

Wow. Pionk being arguably better than Trouba is quite the surprise for the Jets, and a massive disappointment for the Rangers.

Disappointments abound for Byfuglien, Jets

So, Pionk ended up being important to the Jets. And Hellebuyck cleaned up the many messes made by Pionk and that shorthanded blueline crew.

But none of it really washes down the disappointments involving Dustin Byfuglien and his now-former team, the Jets.

The COVID-19 pause creates extra uncertainty, but Byfuglien’s future seems like it would be cloudy either way. It’s also fuzzy figuring out what, exactly, happened. The situation ended up disappointing for Byfuglien’s accountant, at minimum, being that he walked away from a lot of money.

Hopefully we’ll get the pleasant surprise of an awkward-but-entertaining game whenever Byfuglien suits up for a different team against the Jets. The point being: it would be deeply, deeply disappointing if we never see the towering, one-of-a-kind defenseman ever play again. Especially since there would be no warning that we’d already seen his last game.

Either way, it was a highly disappointing end to Byfuglien’s lengthy, important stay with the Jets. The connections between the Thrashers days just keep fading away.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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.

Plenty of big surprises, disappointments for Toronto Maple Leafs

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 Toronto Maple Leafs.

The many surprises and disappointments involving Babcock, Maple Leafs

Look, this isn’t the first instance of the Maple Leafs turning into a hockey soap opera. The pressure cooker Toronto media environment practically demands the spilling of tea.

Even by those heightened standards … my goodness, the Mike Babcock era certainly ended with messy drama. Didn’t it?

You could almost imagine a crowd egging Babcock on with “oohs and ahhs” as he undermined his GM Kyle Dubas more than once. Little did we know that time would reveal just how problematic Babcock’s ego could become.

It’s no surprise that Babcock sometimes rubs players the wrong way, but following his in-season firing, rather troubling details emerged. The hockey world learned about Babcock’s childish mind games with a rookie Mitch Marner. Johan Franzen also spoke out about pretty gross treatment by Babcock during their time in Detroit.

Details about Babcock going far beyond “strict” inspired players to speak up about other coaches blurring the line, including former Babcock protege Bill Peters.

Again, it was no secret that Babcock could be harsh, but learning about the times he went too far ranked among the season’s bigger disappointments. While the jury remains out on Sheldon Keefe, for many Maple Leafs players, a coaching change probably went beyond a pleasant surprise to a downright necessary change.

Biggest changes don’t really work out

Dubas often comes off as progressive, forward-thinking GM, but this past offseason reads like a swing-and-a-miss. Maybe several strikeouts, really.

  • Trading away Nazem Kadri doesn’t look so great. Admittedly, I thought Alexander Kerfoot could be, say, 75 cents to Kadri’s dollar. Unfortunately, some might argue Kerfoot’s closer to a quarter.
  • Few players saw their stock drop like Tyson Barrie‘s did this season. That’s uncomfortable being that Barrie was the biggest takeaway of the Kadri trade.
  • It’s fair to wonder: did the Maple Leafs realize Jake Gardiner might have been easier to retain than expected? As tough as this season’s been for Gardiner, it makes you wonder if there were better ways to move on from Kadri, if that was truly required.
  • The big picture move of ridding Toronto of the Nikita Zaitsev contract was crucial … but it was confusing that they kept Cody Ceci around. And Ceci failed to make that any less of a head-scratching strategy.
  • Yes, it’s true that Patrick Marleau‘s ill-advised contract had Lou Lamoriello’s fingerprints all over it, not those of Dubas. But Dubas still had to pay a big price to unload the final year of Marleau’s deal.
  • Fair or not, that Mitch Marner contract will remain polarizing for quite some time.

On the bright side, the Maple Leafs can walk away from mistakes like Ceci and Barrie if they want to. That doesn’t change the fact that Dubas struck out on some pretty big 2019 summer swings, though.

Not so steady Freddy?

When you factor in workload and difficult assignments, Frederik Andersen moves up your goalie rankings. Well, at least, Andersen did so during previous Maple Leafs seasons.

While Andersen wasn’t a flat-out disaster in 2019-20, he struggled. Andersen sported a .909 save percentage this season, easily the worst of the usually reliable goalie’s career.

Now, it’s true that the Maple Leafs don’t always provide the most nurturing atmosphere for a goalie. That was true under Babcock, and while there were some positive developments, it’s a fair criticism under Keefe. It’s just that Andersen was able to bail Toronto out quite a bit over the years, but hasn’t been able to don the cape so much lately.

Maple Leafs navigate the disappointments and surprises — to a point

People expecting the Maple Leafs to take “the next step” have been disappointing in this season. Really, the team took a step backward, as the gap widened between the Bruins, Lightning, and the Maple Leafs.

When you take stock of all that went wrong, though? It certainly could have been worse.

This team navigated turbulence and found ways to win, ugly or not. Beyond a coaching change, the Maple Leafs also dealt with significant injury issues and other curveballs.

Sports provide examples of plenty of teams putting things together after bumpy seasons. The 2018-19 Blues loom as an example, even if some find them a bit too tempting to apply when it doesn’t quite fit.

Could this team put something together if 2019-20 resumes? Well, the Maple Leafs have certainly been full of surprises already, so who knows?

MORE ON THE MAPLE LEAFS:

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 Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

NHL Power Rankings
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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Goalie fight (Talbot vs. Smith), Tkachuk involved in Flames-Oilers brawl

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People predicting that there would be more carnage in the second of this week’s two installments of “The Battle of Alberta” were right. Really, it’s pretty tough to top a goalie fight.

That’s right, during Saturday’s Oilers – Flames game in Calgary, goalies dropped the masks/gloves/blockers/etc. for the first netminder skirmish since Ray Emery didn’t give Braden Holtby much of a choice in 2013.

In this case, Cam Talbot fought Mike Smith. It was part of a larger skirmish, as Talbot was getting into it with some Oilers, and then the two met later on down the line during the brawl. Personally, I thought “Hmm, not sure I’d want to fight Mike Smith.” Such a thought ended up being pretty justified.

Matthew Tkachuk also fought with Ethan Bear during that larger fracas. You can watch the carnage in the video above.

Now, don’t get me wrong. While Saturday takes the cake in my opinion, Wednesday’s shootout win for the Flames was still nasty and spirited. It also involved a brief fight between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian:

Still, it’s tough to top a goalie fight. Bonus points for Smith being with the Flames last year, and Talbot with the Oilers. It adds a level of goofy weirdness that we can all get behind.

The Oilers ended up blowing out the Flames 8-3 on Saturday. The Buzzer explores another big night for Leon Draisaitl, among other topics.

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.

Panthers still aren’t getting money’s worth with Bobrovsky

Panthers Bobrovsky
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Few teams needed better goaltending more than the Florida Panthers last summer. So, when Sergei Bobrovsky hit the free agent market, the Panthers ignored red flags like age and a mixed 2018-19 season to snatch Bob up.

On paper, the move makes a ton of sense. The Panthers disappointed last season, yet there was a feeling of “… But what if they could just get some stops?” Then, poof here comes a seemingly perfect opportunity. Goalies of Bobrovsky’s caliber rarely hit the open market. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time a two-time Vezina winner became available at least somewhat close to their prime years, yet there Bobrovsky was.

But, again, there were some red flags flashing.

During a busy Saturday afternoon in the NHL, the hockey world got a reminder that you don’t always get what you pay for when you hand $10 million per year to a goalie, even one as accomplished as Bobrovsky.

[Bobrovsky wasn’t off to a great start, in particular.]

Panthers pull Bobrovsky against Sabres

The Panthers likely already entered the first intermission vs. Buffalo with serious frustration. Despite managing an 11-5 shots on goal advantage through 20 minutes, the Sabres managed a 1-0 lead.

Things spiraled out of control for Bobrovsky and the Panthers during the middle frame, as Bob allowed two more goals. Joel Quenneville saw enough, pulling Bobrovsky after the 31-year-old gave up three goals on just seven SOG.

Blaming Bobrovsky alone is unfair, as he could only do so much. Take, for example, this Conor Sheary 2-0 goal:

 

Still, there’s only so much you can do when a goalie barely stops more than half of the attempts he faces.

Bobrovsky giving Panthers more of the same numbers

Teams who allow too many goals face chicken-and-the-egg arguments. That’s often fitting, really, because usually the problems are a mix: goalies should stop more pucks, but their teams could put them in better situations.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon either misdiagnosed the problem as mostly goalie-related, or was throwing up a Hail Mary pass that Bobrovsky could save his bacon.

Either way, it’s painful to note how similar the Panthers’ problems are despite throwing a ton of money and resources at goaltending.

Heading into Saturday, Bobrovsky sported a putrid .897 save percentage. Adjusting for context only helps so much; Bob’s -10.94 goals saved against average languishes among the worst in the NHL. By that standard at Hockey Reference, Bob has only been slightly more effective than the likes of Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones, starters suffering through profoundly miserable seasons.

Such numbers parallel the season-sinking work of James Reimer and Roberto Luongo from 2018-19. Uncomfortably so.

Also uncomfortable: comparing 2018-19 Reimer with the 2019-20 version. Nestled in the Carolina Hurricanes cocoon, Reimer improved his save percentage to .914 versus last season’s rough .900 mark. Reimer’s career average is also .914, making you wonder what happened in Florida — though it’s crucial to remember that, as always, “goalies are voodoo.”

Nature versus nurture

When the Panthers hired Quenneville, they described Coach Q as “transformative.” So far, the Panthers’ overall play seems … mostly middle of the pack?

The Panthers give the impression of probably deserving a little bit better from goaltending, but by how much? What portion of the blame goes to Bobrovsky and other goalies versus the team around them?

Panthers outscore some, but not all, of their problems

Florida deserves credit for hanging around the East playoff bubble considering their troubles stopping pucks.

While allowing a third-worst 3.35 goals against per game (before Saturday) qualifies as worrisome, the Panthers also rank third-best with 3.55 goals for per game. The Panthers generate more goals than they allow, so maybe the situation isn’t so dire.

Perhaps the Panthers’ well-compensated coach can turn enough knobs to make life easier for their well-compensated goalie?

After performances like Saturday’s dud against Buffalo, it’s easy to get pessimistic about Bobrovsky. An optimist may counter that Florida isn’t that far away from finding the right balance.

Unfortunately, a realist will note that the Panthers wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they began right now, and face a significant hill to climb in an Atlantic Division that’s starting to look stacked once again — at least at the top.

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.