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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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]
Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.
Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners 4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation 8:45-13:00 Other return to play details 14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview 23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview
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.
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?
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
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:
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:
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:
Kessel in the news, and a surprising number of people think he must be good defensively because Known Silly People think he is bad defensively. Sadly silly people are not quite as universally wrong as would be convenient. pic.twitter.com/kNUXGx8SIT
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?
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.
As the NHL and NHLPA continue hammering away at a return-to-play plan, we’re closer to learning which two cities will act as hubs.
According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie and ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, Edmonton and Toronto have emerged as the likely destinations. Once details on Phase 3 (training camp) and Phase 4 (games being played) are finalized, the agreement would then need to be ratified by the entire Players’ Association and voted on by the NHL’s Board of Governors. Those votes could take place later this week.
Since Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s return-to-play plan in May, Las Vegas was seen as a lock. But the number of COVID-19 cases has surged recently, prompting both sides to look to Canada should play resume later this summer.
This is all subject to an NHL/NHLPA agreement, which could also include an extension to a Collective Bargaining Agreement that is set to expire in Sept. 2022. That deal would see a cap on escrow at 20% for 2020-21, and one season where players would defer 10% of their salary. That money would be returned to them in the future. The salary cap ceiling would also be set at around $81.5 million for the next three seasons. Compliance buyouts are not expected be part of any agreement.
And according to Pierre LeBrun, Olympic participation in 2022 and 2026 would also be in the deal between the league and union. That would then require further discussions with the International Olympic Committee before players would get the green light to go.