Anton Khudobin

NHL Stanley Cup Western Conference round-robin preview

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The NHL Stanley Cup round-robin begins August 2 as the Western Conference’s top four teams battle for First Round seeding. This week, PHT look at one question facing each of the top four seeds in the East and West.

NHL Western Conference Round Robin — TV schedule, start times, channels

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blues vs. Avalanche, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 3: Stars vs. Golden Knights, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche vs. Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights vs. Blues, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, TBD

Western Conference Round Robin preview: Questions for Avalanche, Blues, Golden Knights, and Stars

Avalanche: Are the Avs already contenders, or will that day come later?

The Avalanche already took swift steps forward when Nathan MacKinnon leapt from very nice player to a full-fledged superstar. Year after year, it seems like Colorado adds potential young impact players to the mix. It’s all enough to picture a future brighter than a snow-packed mountain.

But what about the present?

The Avs were right there with the Blues as the top team in the West this season, even with some injury headaches. No team in the West enjoyed a better goal differential (+46) and a team with such young legs would seemingly hit the ground running.

Of course, we won’t know how any team will respond to the unique challenge that is the NHL Return to Play. Will the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers began a coronation for MacKinnon and the Avs, or could that happen down the line? We’ll find out soon enough.

(And chances are, it will be fun to watch.)

Blues: Will Tarasenko be their tank, or could a bumpy return tank repeat hopes?

It’s easy to imagine Vladimir Tarasenko merely slotting into the Blues lineup and making a strong team even stronger. That’s especially easy to picture since Tarasenko won a Stanley Cup with this largely similar team last season.

(You … don’t need to remind Laila Anderson and other Blues fans that they won it all. If you try, you probably know which song they’ll sing.)

That said, the Blues are such a well-oiled machine. While Tarasenko doesn’t take much away from the table defensively, it’s possible he might be a little less sharp right off the bat. Sure, other players are going to be rusty, but Tarasenko last played in October.

There’s also the potential distraction of Alex Pietrangelo eyeing free agency, but such thoughts didn’t hurt Pietrangelo. If anything, he’s enjoyed one of his best seasons in the NHL.

[2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule / NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Golden Knights: Who should be their starting goalie: Fleury or Lehner?

Lehner vs. Marc-Andre Fleury Western Conference Round Robin preview NHL Return to Play
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

No doubt about it, Marc-Andre Fleury served as the face of the Golden Knights franchise, particularly during their smash-success debut season. Fleury has the rings and the swagger that come with being an experienced starting goalie in the NHL.

But the Golden Knights are too young of a franchise to coast off of nostalgia.

With a mediocre .905 save percentage, Fleury dragged Vegas down at times in 2019-20. To be fair, previous backup Malcolm Subban rarely enjoyed better luck. Yet, Lehner showed promise in his brief looks post-trade, and generally put together some of the best netminding work of the past two seasons.

This is a talented Golden Knights team. It also rapidly became an expensive one. Maybe there’s still a “honeymoon phase” going on, but the hangover from another early playoff exit would be painful.

If Lehner looks demonstratively sharper than Fleury, then Peter DeBoer simply has to make that call. Whichever goalie gets the nod, don’t expect people to have much patience if that No. 1 goalie falters.

Stars: Will Big D forge an identity?

When it comes to the Dallas Stars’ 2018-19 season, people remember it for CEO Jim Lites’ profane criticisms of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as much as they do the Stars pushing the Blues to the limit in a Game 7. This season, Jim Montgomery’s shocking exit overshadowed an up-and-down season.

The Stars placing among the West’s top four says as much about the state of the conference as it does about this team. After all, this squad managed a meager +3 goal differential in 2019-20.

Generally speaking, the Stars succeed when they can score just enough to give Ben Bishop and/or Anton Khudobin the margin of error they need. Considering how well those two have played, Dallas hasn’t always needed to score much.

Even so, the angst lingers as Seguin and Benn struggle to find the same scoring touch of peak years. While this team has some great young talent (particularly Miro Heiskanen), the Stars still generally go as far as their two big names and sometimes-excellent goaltending can take them.

Could Rick Bowness find a better formula, though? It’s not the most ideal circumstance to search for that next gear, but if you squint enough, you could see ways that the Stars could put together an impressive run.

Of course, they could just easily fall apart quickly. To an extent, that’s just the nature of the beast in the NHL.

Continued reading on Round Robin games, NHL Return to Play, and more

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.

Rest vs. rust for top four West teams in Round Robin

[UPDATE – JULY 10: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

It’s time to break down how the top four teams in the West should approach the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding. Earlier on Wednesday, PHT examined similar “rest vs. rust” debates for the East’s top four teams in this format.

Debates for West top four teams heading into NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding

St. Louis Blues

Compared to some of the East’s aging teams, the Blues are reasonably spry. Yes, Alex Pietrangelo is 30, and David Perron is 32. There are some veterans to watch, but the larger picture is a team heavy on mid-prime players.

That said, the Blues should monitor a few situations.

Most obviously, they need to keep an eye on Vladimir Tarasenko. All signs point to Tarasenko being good to go, but it’s unclear if he’ll need to be managed after shoulder surgery.

If the Blues are being proactive, they also might want to keep an open mind with their goalies. Sure, it seems like the top job is Jordan Binnington‘s to lose. But it should be noted that Jake Allen enjoyed a shockingly redemptive season, besting Binnington in save percentage (.927 to Binnington’s .912) and more advanced stats (Allen GSAA: 11.23; Binnington: 3.31).

As defending champions, the Blues enjoy a certain “honeymoon phase,” especially since they broke the franchise’s Stanley Cup curse. Combine that with the wear-and-tear on players like Pietrangelo and 29-year-old Ryan O'Reilly, and there should be a push to rest the top-ranked West team in the Round Robin for Seeding.

Colorado Avalanche

On one hand, the Avalanche rank as one of the youngest contenders in recent memory. Scarily so, if you’re a team preparing to jostle with them in the West over the next few years.

That said, the Avs suffered from a notable number of injuries, including late in the eventually paused season.

Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Philipp Grubauer, and Andre Burakovsky suffered injuries of varying severity in February. Nathan MacKinnon got a little dinged up in March.

Colorado persevered through some pretty significant injuries late in 2018-19, as well, so the Avalanche must be thrilled by the possibility of entering the West Round Robin for Seeding healthier than usual.

Ideally, at least. Managing this might come down to a mix of luck (those players healing up on time) and caution (not getting too greedy in this three-game format).

Vegas Golden Knights

Normally, the concern would revolve around insulating 35-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Instead, the Golden Knights should think long and hard about nudging the starting job toward Robin Lehner. NHL teams rarely are so bold, though, so we’ll assume “MAF” is the guy. Maybe Lehner allows Vegas to be more fast-and-loose with “The Flower.”

If you want another way to summarize the strangeness of this season, consider that the Golden Knights could grab the top seed in the West despite firing their coach. On that note, is Peter DeBoer truly comfortable with the team he has in front of him? It will be necessary to supplement the West Round Robin for Seeding with makeshift training camp, but sometimes you get the most “intel” with something on the line.

And, despite only being in their third season, the Golden Knights face stakes.

After shocking the hockey world, the Golden Knights have stocked up with the likes of Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. With that in mind, the Golden Knights are closer to the Blues than the Avalanche when you’re considering the age of go-to players.

Many of those players probably benefited from this break. Pacioretty and Stone ranked among those nursing injuries. It’s not certain, yet this seems like a situation where Vegas might get Alex Tuch back, too.

Vegas basically falls in the middle of the pack as far as the “rest vs. rust” debates go in the Round Robin for Seeding, in the West and overall.

Dallas Stars

Aside from a youthful defense, the Stars stand out as one of the teams that should really be careful with veteran players.

Size is one of the factors that helps Ben Bishop (33) dominate, yet that also likely heightens his injury risk. On the bright side, Anton Khudobin (34) stands right there with him as two goalies who deliver. They’re also both on the old side, though.

The forward group is up there as well. As much has been made about Tyler Seguin (28) and especially Jamie Benn (30) losing a step or two, it’s the supporting cast that’s dancing with Father Time. Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry are both 35, while Alexander Radulov and Andrew Cogliano are both 33.

(At least there’s 23-year-old Roope Hintz and a few others to add some youth to that mix.)

It’s important for Rick Bowness to read the room here.

While there’s an argument that this interrupted format might benefit high-scoring teams, it’s also possible that a stingy group could make a run. Maybe that lack of crowd noise will suffocate offenses that much more?

The Stars aren’t favorites, so it wouldn’t be bleeping horsebleep if this didn’t work out. It would be if the Stars fall short because of self-inflicted wounds, though.

MORE ON NHL PLAYOFFS, ROUND ROBIN FOR SEEDING:

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.

Crawford, Howard, and other interesting veteran NHL free agent goalies

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Earlier this week, PHT looked at uncertain futures for veteran NHL free agent forwards. The league’s other positions face just as much, if not more, uncertainty. So let’s keep this going by tackling veteran NHL free agent goalies.

As with that forward focus, this isn’t a comprehensive list of NHL free agent goalies. This revolves around veterans, with an admittedly arbitrary cutoff of 30 years or older.

Said veteran NHL free agent goalies must also hit a sweet spot. We’re ignoring goalies who should be no-brainer signings (Robin Lehner‘s been one of the best netminders, and he’s also only 28). We’re also going to skate past goalies with dubious chances of being signed to NHL contracts.

You might think such specific parameters would mean zero veteran NHL free agent goalies. Nope, there’s a pretty interesting list. Actually, if you feel like someone prominent didn’t make the cut, do tell.

(We’ll know you are trolling if you blurt out “Robin Lehner,” by the way.)

[Players who might be considering retirement]

Corey Crawford

I was tempted to leave Crawford off of this list. The reasoning is simple enough: Crawford has plenty of name recognition, and he was actually quite good (16-20-3, but with a .917 save percentage) this season.

Ultimately, Crawford warrants a mention, though. For one thing, he’s not that far removed from injury issues that credibly threatened his career. Also, with the Blackhawks firing team president John McDonough and other signs of turmoil, there’s increased uncertainty regarding Crawford’s future with his longtime team. Crawford is 35, too, so there’s the risk of a 35+ contract likely limiting his term options.

Honestly, the Blackhawks might be justified in flinching at bringing back Crawford for a more cynical reason. If Chicago wants to blow things up, or at least institute a mini-reboot, Crawford may foil such plans by … being too good.

The 2018-19 season stands as one of just two seasons where Crawford’s Goals Saved Against Average was on the negative side. With a 9.01 mark for 2019-20, Crawford ranked ahead of the likes of Carter Hart (4.47), stellar backup Jaroslav Halak (8.83), and resurgent Cam Talbot (7.53).

It would be absurd if someone didn’t want Crawford. The NHL can be an absurd league sometimes, though.

Jimmy Howard

During the 2019 NHL trade deadline, it was a little surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade Howard. Outsiders can only speculate if it was more about then-GM Ken Holland asking for too much, or the market being truly, totally dry.

But, either way, Howard’s market value looks much different (read: worse) after a brutal 2019-20, both for the Red Wings and for their veteran goalie. The 36-year-old suffered through a lousy .882 save percentage this season after being steady for two seasons (.909 and .910) and fantastic in 2016-17 (.927).

My guess is that someone will be interested in Howard, but it would be a surprise if he wore a Red Wings sweater in 2020-21. I’d also guess he’s slated to be a clear backup.

Mike Smith

There are goalies teams talk themselves out of (like, seemingly, Robin Lehner). Then there are goalies who gain a lot of leeway, such as Smith.

Familiarity sure seemed to help Smith land with the Oilers. It’s safe to assume that Dave Tippett fondly recalled Smith’s outstanding work during the Coyotes’ 2012 Western Conference Final run. That nostalgia didn’t lead to enough timely saves, though, as Mikko Koskinen soundly surpassed Smith (and Talbot was better in Calgary).

At 38, and with two straight below-average seasons under his belt, Smith may be teetering out of the league. Then again, he’s a big goalie, can handle the puck, and some might weigh those increasingly distant memories almost as heavily as Tippett and the Oilers did last summer.

Other NHL free agent goalies

  • I assume that 34-year-old goalies Thomas Greiss and Anton Khudobin should earn ample interest. They’ve both been fantastic, so I didn’t feel they needed a section. If interest isn’t certain though … it should be.
  • For the most part, Ryan Miller‘s future hinges on his own choices, and preference to be in the California area. Still, he’s worth mentioning, being that he’s 39 and didn’t perform as well in 2019-20.
  • Brian Elliott, 35, came through at times for the Flyers when Hart was injured. The overall picture of his season wasn’t pretty, however. It was fair to wonder about his future last offseason, and he’ll need to keep his expectations modest if he wants to stick in the NHL.
  • The curious trend of Craig Anderson flip-flopping average and elite seasons ended a while ago. It’s now been three rough seasons for the 39-year-old. Maybe someone would believe he could regain some of his past form on a more … hopeful team than the Senators?
  • Aaron Dell ranked as one of the NHL’s better backups in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Then the past two seasons happened, casting serious doubt over the 31-year-old’s future. Perhaps a team might pin that on the Sharks’ system and give Dell, say, a competitive third goalie spot?
  • Could be mostly sad emojis for 30-year-old Keith Kinkaid.

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.

Long-term outlook for Dallas Stars: Free agents, prospects, and more

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 long-term outlook for the Dallas Stars.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn stand as the Stars’ highest-paid players (almost $10M per year for each), and management’s most sought-after scapegoats. If CEO Jim Lites & Co. had issues with Seguin (28, contract expires after 2026-27) and Benn (30, 2024-25) already, one can only imagine how nasty things might get as Father Time really rubs it in.

At least both remain effective if you keep expectations fair — especially Seguin. Even if the Stars’ staunch and stingy system does little to goose their counting stats.

By investing quite a bit of term in Esa Lindell, the Stars figure to lean on Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, and John Klingberg for the foreseeable future. Heiskanen’s rookie deal runs out after next season, while Klingberg will only be a bargain through 2021-22.

Ben Bishop continues to provide fantastic goaltending, easily exceeding his near-$5M AAV so far. At 33, it’s fair to wonder if a big slide is coming, so that might go from a bargain to a burden before Bishop’s contract expires after 2022-23.

It will be interesting to see who else joins the core. Looking at the list of pending free agents alone, the Stars face interesting contract challenges with Hintz, Faksa, and Gurianov. The hope is those forwards can pick up the slack for aging players like Alexander Radulov, Joe Pavelski, and Andrew Cogliano.

One would think that a goalie-needy team would drive Khudobin out of the backup goalie price range, but if not, Dallas would be wise to see how much longer their two-headed monster over 33-year-old goalies can keep this up.

Seeing Hanzal’s cursed contract ($4.75M AAV) come off the books must be a massive, Hanzal-sized relief.

Long-term needs for Stars

Khudobin and Bishop delivered shockingly strong results, even for those who favored the two, but again, they’re both 33. Getting younger in net needs to be an emphasis, whether that means a younger (cheaper) backup, or someone on the horizon. Maybe prospect Jake Oettinger could be the answer to a number of questions?

Finding a better balance between risk and rewards lingers as a more abstract key.

Does that mean finding a different coaching option other than interim bench boss Rick Bowness? Perhaps. Seeing Seguin languish with a modest team lead in points at 50 is already a bummer. No one else reaching 40 points in 2019-20 is downright alarming.

There are some nice supplementary pieces in guys like Hintz, but if Seguin and Benn continue to sink from superstars to stars, do the Stars have enough star power? If not, they’ll need to manufacture goals by committee.

Long-term strengths for Stars

A different chef might be able to put together a winning recipe with the ingredients on hand.

In particular, there are pieces to ice a modern, mobile defense. Heiskanen already hovers somewhere between star and full-fledged superstar. Klingberg suffered through a disappointing 2019-20, yet he still has a lot of talent, and could rebound in a more creative setup.

While Lindell is a bit more meat-and-potatoes, prospect Thomas Harley provides potential for more explosive offense from the Stars’ defense.

Speaking of prospects, Ty Dellandrea and Jason Robertson might eventually help the Stars improve their depth on offense. If those two work out, they could help Dallas patch up slippage for Benn and Seguin alongside the likes of Hintz.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked the Stars’ farm system 18th overall in January (sub required), while his Athletic colleague placed Dallas’ sub-23 group at 15th. That’s not world-beating stuff, but it’s also pretty solid for a team that’s becoming a fairly consistent playoff squad.

Goaltending might remain a strength if Bishop ends up being one of those goalies who ages well. We’ll see.

Overall, Heiskanen stands out as the player Stars fans should be most excited about. There are a decent number of others, especially if Seguin gets better puck luck than the 6.9 shooting percentage that made his 2019-20 season far from nice.

MORE STARS:
• 2019-20 season summary
• Surprises and disappointments

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.

Dallas Stars: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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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 Dallas Stars.

Stars firing Jim Montgomery among season’s biggest surprises

Amid a rash of surprising head coach firings, the Stars dismissed Jim Montgomery in December.

You could say there were surprises within surprises. In a media age where secrets are difficult to guard, the details of Montgomery’s “unprofessional conduct” still remain vague. Frankly, we still don’t know a whole lot beyond Montgomery announcing that he checked into rehab for alcohol issues.

To some extent, it continues the trends of the Stars presenting quite a few surprises off the ice. After all, Montgomery criticized Stars stars Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn early this season, carrying on the f’ing horsebleep tradition from CEO Jim Lites in 2018-19.

On the ice, the Stars play a defensive style that aims to suffocate any semblance of mistakes. Off the ice, the Stars feel more like a soap opera.

Bishop and Khudobin keep chugging along

Whether it was Montgomery or Rick Bowness behind the bench, the Stars have maintained a steadfast commitment to defense.

It’s plausible that the Stars could find a more even balance between risk and reward, yet if nothing else, Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin continue to thrive. Yes, Dallas does what it can to set the table for success, but Bishop and Khudobin remain an elite combo. Personally, any sustained run of great goaltending is a surprise, as goalies can be very unpredictable in the modern NHL.

Khudobin (16-8-4, .930 save percentage) has actually been even better than Bishop (21-16-4, .920) this season, but the cumulative result is goaltending that allows the Stars to successfully walk a tightrope of low-scoring games. Bishop and Khudobin both rank among the top 10 in Evolving Hockey’s goals saved above expectation stat, as Charting Hockey captures:

Stars surprises Khudobin Bishop dominant again

Being that both are 33, it’s fair to wonder if they can sustain this much longer. Either way, delivering such excellent goaltending again in 2019-20 served as one of the more pleasant surprises for the Stars.

(Granted, the Stars might expect that work at this point, whether that’s realistic or not.)

Klingberg and free agents rank as disappointments for Stars

Dallas aimed to take the next step by handing Joe Pavelski a three-year contract with a $7M AAV. They also hoped they were buying low on Corey Perry.

Rather than representing the next step, Pavelski’s been stumbling for the Stars, at least production-wise. Meanwhile, Perry started off on the wrong foot — a broken one — and basically face-planted from day one. His most memorable Stars moment will probably be his “walk of shame” after Perry was ejected from the 2020 Winter Classic.

While players like Roope Hintz made positive strides in 2019-20, John Klingberg seems to have taken a discouraging step back.

Klingberg is still useful, but it would be more appealing if he could maintain the Norris Trophy dark horse work from previous seasons as Miro Heiskanen comes into his own. Consider Klingberg’s strong multi-season RAPM chart (via Evolving Hockey) for 2016-17 through 2018-19:

Stars surprises Klingberg three year

Versus Klingberg’s less impressive RAPM chart for this season:

Stars surprises Klingberg struggles 2019-20

No, Klingberg has not been a disaster. Clearly, Klingberg still helps on offense, particularly on the power play. But this regression remains one of the disappointments for the Stars this season.

MORE ON STARS IN 2019-20:

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.