Artemi Panarin

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Blue Jackets still have reasons for optimism after free agency exodus

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The 2018-19 season was the most successful one in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise.

They went all in at the trade deadline to load up for a postseason run, made the playoffs for the third year in a row (first time they have ever done that), and then upset the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a stunning four-game sweep to advance to Round 2 for the first time in team history. While the end result was not what they wanted, it was still the first time fans of the team had ever had something to be truly excited about. Management paid a heavy price to reach that point (trading several draft picks and prospects) and then watched over the summer as a free agency exodus saw the departure of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Those exits have left some significant holes on the roster, especially in net where they have no proven replacement for a two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie.

It is possible — if not likely — that the team regresses this season, especially in a Metropolitan Division where every team is loading up on talent.

Even with all of that working against them, there are still reasons for Blue Jackets fans to have some cautious optimism about the short-and long-term outlook of the team.

Among them…

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing

The Blue Jackets may have lost All-Stars at forward and in net, but they still have two of them on their blue line. The Werenski-Jones duo has been one of the best in the NHL over the past three seasons. During that time they have played more than 3,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with the Blue Jackets outscoring their opponents by 16 goals and controlling more than 52 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Jones turns 25 at the start of the season while Werenski will only be entering his age 22 season, meaning both of them should still be on top of their game for the foreseeable future with still room to improve. The rest of the blue line might need some work, but finding even one defender of this caliber is a difficult task. The Blue Jackets have two of them.

Cam Atkinson is better than you might realize

He may not be a star or total point producer on the level of Panarin, but Atkinson has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers for the past four years and is coming off of a career-high 41-goal effort during the 2018-19 season. While he might be due for a slight regression from that mark, only 11 players have scored more totals goals than him since the start of the 2015-16 season. Only nine have scored more even-strength goals. A lot will be made over what they lost this summer, but they still have some good veterans returning and Atkinson is at the top of that list.

Gustav Nyquist looks like a strong addition

Is he going to completely replace what the Blue Jackets are losing in Panarin? No he is not. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a great pickup, especially at that salary cap hit. You know every year he is going to give you 20 goals, 50 points, and help drive possession. He is an excellent all-around player.

They have a ton of salary cap space to play with

Even when taking into account the money they will need to re-sign Werenski this summer, the Blue Jackets have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the NHL, meaning they have the flexibility to make in-season additions to help fill weaknesses, whether they be in net or on the wing.

Pierre-Luc Dubois could be their next star

He is our X-factor for the Blue Jackets this season. Dubois is trending toward becoming an impact player in the middle of the Blue Jackets’ lineup and could be on the verge of a monster season based on what he has done over the first two years of his career. If he continues on that trajectory and takes a big leap in his development it will go a long way toward helping the Blue Jackets replace what they have lost over the summer.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

What Devils can expect from Gusev

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There is a very strong argument to be made that Nikita Gusev has been the best hockey player in the world that was not already playing in the NHL.

Now that he is officially a member of the New Jersey Devils we will finally get a chance to see what he is capable of in North America.

Anytime a player makes the jump from a European league to the NHL there is always some uncertainty as to what they will be able to do, and that always carries some risk when teams are investing millions of dollars in them. Sometimes the gamble works, and sometimes it does not.

If you are a Devils fan and looking for reasons for optimism that Gusev will be one of the success stories, it is that the players that are most similar to him in terms of age and production in the KHL have mostly succeeded in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The table below is a quick breakdown of some similar players.

It looks at what each forward did in their two previous seasons in the KHL (sorted by points per game) and what they then produced after signing in the NHL. As you can see, the players most similar to Gusev have, for the most part, been extremely productive.

Radulov and Kovalchuk are, admittedly, not completely perfect comparisons here because they both had NHL experience before they went to the KHL (Kovalchuk was an NHL superstar) and there was at least some sense as to what they were capable of.

But Gusev’s production is right in line (or better) than what Artemi Panarin, Evgenii Dadonov, Radulov, and Kovalchuk did before making their jumps back to the NHL. All of them are currently top-line forwards.

Kovalchuk’s return to Los Angeles this season is viewed as a disappointment, but he is also significantly older than the others in that group and still managed to score at a 20-goal pace on a miserable Kings team that lacked any offensive creativity around him. The only comparable player that did not have any success in the NHL was Vadim Shipachyov, and the circumstances around his failure in Vegas are still a mystery as that relationship seemed destined for a divorce before it even had a chance to begin. We still don’t know what he could have been capable of with a real shot.

The only other players that really flopped in making the jump (Sergei Plotnikov, Valeri Nichushkin) were not even close to the same level of production in the KHL.

There are still no guarantees, but given his age and what he did recently in Russia there is at least reason to believe he can be closer to a Panarin, Dadonov, or Radulov than a Plotnikov or Nichushkin.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him for two years
One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

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.

Why Rangers should consider trading Chris Kreider right now

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The New York Rangers have undergone one of the most significant transformations in the league this offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and the good fortune that saw them move to No. 2 in the draft lottery where they selected Kaapo Kakko.

It has drastically changed the look of the team on the ice, both for the long-term and the short-term, and also significantly altered their salary cap structure.

With the new contracts for Panarin and Trouba adding $19.6 million to their salary cap number (for the next seven years) it currently has the Rangers over the cap for this season while still needing to re-sign three restricted free agents, including Pavel Buchnevich who is coming off of a 21-goal performance in only 64 games.

Obviously somebody is going to have to go at some point over the next year, and it remains entirely possible that “somebody” could be veteran forward Chris Kreider given his contract situation and the team’s new salary cap outlook.

Perhaps even as soon as this summer by way of a trade.

What makes it so complicated for Kreider and the Rangers is that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and will be in line for a significant pay raise from his current $4.6 million salary cap number.

It is a tough situation for general manager Jeff Gorton and new team president John Davidson to tackle.

If you are looking at things in a more short-term window there is at least a decent argument for trying to keep Kreider this season, and perhaps even beyond. For one, he is still a really good player. He scored 28 goals this past season, still brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and is still an important part of the roster.

Even though the Rangers missed the playoffs by a significant margin this past season (20 points back) they are not that far away from being able to return to the postseason. Maybe even as early as this season if everything goes absolutely perfect. They added a top-10 offensive player in the league (Panarin), a top-pairing defender (Trouba), another promising young defender with potential (Fox), a potential superstar (Kakko), and still have a goalie (Henrik Lundqvist) that can change a season if he is on top of his game. It is not a given, and not even likely, but the window is at least starting to open.

Even if they do not make it this season they are not so far away that Kreider could not still be a potentially productive member of that next playoff team.

The salary cap situation will be complicated, but the Rangers can easily trim elsewhere in a variety of ways, whether it be utilizing the second buyout window or trading another, less significant part of the roster. As we just saw this past week, there is no contract in the NHL that is completely unmovable.

They COULD do it.

But just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, and that is the big issue the Rangers have to face with one of their most important players.

Should they keep him and try to sign him to a new long-term contract?

For as good as Kreider still is, and for as much as the Rangers have improved this summer, they still have to think about the big-picture outlook.

That means separating what a player has done for you from what that player will do for you in the future. For a team like the Rangers that is still building for something beyond this season, the latter part is the only thing that matters.

The reality of Kreider’s situation is that he is going to be 29 years old when his next contract begins, will be making significantly more than his current salary, and is almost certainly going to be on the threshold of a significant decline in his production (assuming it has not already started).

Let’s try to look at this as objectively as possible.

Kreider just completed his age 27 season, has played 470 games in the NHL, and averaged 0.29 goals per game and 0.59 points per game for his career.

There were 12 forwards in the NHL this past season that had similar numbers through the same point in their careers (at least 400 games played, at least 0.25 goals per game, and between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game). That list included Adam Henrique, Ryan Callahan, Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, Drew Stafford, Andrew Ladd, Tomas Tatar, Jordan Staal, David Perron, Lee Stempniak, and Kyle Turris.

This is not a perfect apples to apples comparison here because a lot of the players in that group play different styles and have different skillsets. They will not all age the exact same way or see their talents deteriorate in the same way. But what should concern the Rangers is that almost every one of the players on that list that is currently over the age of 30 has seen their production fall off a cliff. Some of them now carry contracts that look regrettable for their respective teams.

It is pretty much a given that as a player gets closer to 30 and plays beyond that their production is going to decline. Teams can get away with paying elite players into their 30s because even if they decline their production is still probably going to be better than a significant part of the league. Maybe Panarin isn’t an 80-point player at age 30 or 31, but it is a good bet he is still a 65-or 70-point player and a legitimate top-line winger.

Players like Kreider that aren’t starting at that level don’t have as much wiggle room, and when they decline from their current level they start to lose some (or even a lot) of their value.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Given the Rangers’ salary cap outlook, that is probably a risk they can not afford to take with Kreider long-term because it is far more likely that a new contract becomes an albatross on their cap than a good value.

You also have to consider that the Rangers have long-term options at wing that will quickly push Kreider down the depth chart.

Panarin is one of the best wingers in the league. Over the past two years they used top-10 picks in potential impact wingers (Kaako this year and Vitali Kravtsov a year ago). Buchnevich just turned 24 and has already shown 20-goal potential in the NHL.

As Adam Herman at Blueshirt Banter argued immediately after the signing of Panarin, committing more than $6 million per year to a winger that, in the very near future, may only be the fourth or fifth best winger on the team is a very questionable (at best) move in a salary cap league and gives them almost zero margin for error elsewhere on the roster.

Right now Kreider still has a lot of value to the Rangers for this season. He is probably making less than his market value, is still one of their best players, and still makes them better right now.

But when you look at the situation beyond this season his greatest value to them probably comes in the form of a trade chip because it not only means they can acquire an asset (or two) whose career better aligns with their next best chance to compete for a championship, but it also means they do not have to pay a soon-to-be declining, non-elite player a long-term contract into their 30s, a situation that almost never works out favorably for the team.

The Rangers have had to trade some key players and make some tough decisions during this rebuild.

They should be strongly considering making the same decision with Kreider.

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.

How long interview period changed course of NHL free agency

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Artemi Panarin did not have to imagine what he might look like in a New York Rangers uniform.

His likeness in Rangers blue adorned the giant video screens at Madison Square Garden with the message ”Welcome Artemi” a full four days before he signed with the team.

”There was a moment where I just sat down for 10 minutes and really thought about it,” Panarin said, ”and my heart told me that New York would be the better place for me.”

Free agency in the NHL this season had surprises, as it always does, and there was a major factor that went somewhat under the radar: The post-draft ”interview window” for teams to talk with free agent targets was the longest in its short history. It opened June 23 and went right up until the signing period opened July 1, giving it the biggest impact since the window was added to the league calendar in 2014.

Some executives hated it, but the extended chance to wine and dine played a big role in a number of deals – from the Dallas Stars landing veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to the New York Islanders moving on from standout goalie Robin Lehner.

”It was a long week,” Perry said. ”There was a lot of phone calls and just feeling out teams and seeing where they are, seeing what they might have as a plan of attack for next season. I got to ask questions, they told me what they think. It was an eye-opener, not ever going through it, but it was a fun process.”

Florida general manager Dale Tallon said it was not much fun to go from the draft right into a week of free agent conversations – ”I hate this week, to tell you the truth,” he said – but it didn’t turn out so bad: The Panthers signed top goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, winger Brett Connolly and defenseman Anton Stralman .

Free agency for years was a land rush at noon July 1 and perhaps the frenzied pace of negotiations contributed to some ill-fated contracts and bad fits. With more time, many contracts were agreed to before free agency began, similar to how things work in the NFL and NBA. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said each year the league sends a memo to its clubs reminding them that deals cannot be signed until July 1 but he was not concerned about how the process went this time.

”I think it’s more an evolution of how clubs, agents and players have handled (the interview period) than anything else,” Daly said.

New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero, assistant Tom Fitzgerald and coach John Hynes held a 90-minute conference call with winger Wayne Simmonds and agent Eustace King before signing Simmonds for $5 million. And Pavelski got to tour Dallas with Stars captain Jamie Benn and team executive Tom Holy, a familiar face from San Jose.

”To go spend a little time just kind of casually, you know how things kind of come up organically, it was just nice to kind of hang out and spend a little bit of time,” Pavelski said. ”As a player, teammates definitely come into a big part of recruiting, I think. But it’s one of those things does the fit, do you feel comfortable around different personalities.”

Panarin knew all about Rangers President John Davidson from their time together in Columbus. But the former head of the Blue Jackets’ hockey operations department believes he only had to remind the Russian winger during his visit about all the things that drew him back to New York.

”He’s made it very vocal that he’s always wanted to be in a big city, and there’s no bigger city than New York,” Davidson said. ”In talking to us, (he) talked about how he wants to win. He actually talked about Mark Messier and what Mark Messier did with the Rangers to get into the winning part of the business.”

Seeing Messier’s No. 11 and the 1994 Stanley Cup champions banner at Madison Square Garden didn’t hurt. But it was away from the rink that Panarin’s connection to the Rangers became abundantly clear and led to him taking less money than the Islanders, Blue Jackets and Panthers offered .

”You could sense his enthusiasm for the Rangers, for the big city, for the big stage,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”His knowledge of the game, his knowledge of our team, it all shined right through. Right away for everybody in the room it was pretty exciting to hear some of the things he had to say.”

The interview period is a two-way street, and the Washington Capitals signed winger Richard Panik in large part because they reached out to him first. Panik waited for other teams to come close to the $11 million, four-year offer as the clock ticked.

”For me, it was really stressful,” Panik said. ”It was the best offer I had pretty much from the beginning. They offered me four years. Nobody else did. That was the main reason. That’s why I chose (Washington). I wanted a longer deal, and they were willing to do it right away.”

Plenty of teams had interest in Perry, who signed an incentives-heavy one-year deal with Dallas to prove himself after being bought out by the Anaheim Ducks. The Stars showing him their map to Cup contention and bringing in Pavelski sealed the deal.

”They have everything that I want in a hockey team,” Perry said. ”They’re on the verge of putting something really great together. I want to be a part of that.”

Lehner was part of a surprisingly great season with the Islanders, who re-signed forwards Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle to bring back almost the same team.

Had it not been for the extra time, Lehner might have reached a deal to stay. Instead, the Islanders moved on to Semyon Varlamov, Lehner learned about the potential downside of the interview period and Chicago benefited from it by signing him to a $5 million, one-year contract.

”It was kind of an ultimatum put in front of me and I took a couple days to think about it,” Lehner said. ”When I came back and wanted to make something work, they already went for another goalie. That is the truth.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Power Rankings: Looking at every NHL team’s offseason

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With the 2019 NHL Draft in the rear-view mirror and all of the major unrestricted free agents signed, it is time to check in on how each team has improved (or failed to improve) so far this offseason.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we will be taking a look at the teams that have done the most (and the least) to get better.

Before we get to the rankings we do need to specify something very important: This is NOT a ranking of where each team stands in the league in terms of Stanley Cup contender or playoff status, or a ranking of how good each team is overall. It is simply a look at which teams have had the best and worst offseasons. If you have had a good offseason, you rank high. If you had a bad offseason, you rank low.

Obviously there is still time this summer for teams to get better (or worse), but this is simply a progress report of where their offseason stands right now.

Teams that are significantly better

1. New York Rangers. It would be difficult to have a better offseason than the one the Rangers have had. They added one of the league’s top offensive players (Artemi Panarin), a potential superstar thanks to some draft lottery luck (Kaapo Kakko), and a top-four defender (Jacob Trouba). They did all of that while giving up nothing of significance from their NHL roster. Is it a playoff team this season? That probably depends on how much Henrik Lundqvist has left in the tank, but they are close.

2. New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban joining a core that already has Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall makes the Devils a fascinating team to watch. Now they just need to find a way to keep Hall beyond this season. Like the Rangers they may not be a playoff team this season, but they are definitely improved.

3. Colorado Avalanche. Losing Tyson Barrie off the blue line might hurt, but the Avalanche are loaded with young, impact defenders and by trading Barrie they found a perfect second-line center (Nazem Kadri) to complement Nathan MacKinnon … as long as Kadri stays on the ice and out of the player safety office. Along with the additions of Joonas Donskoi and Andre Burakovsky they now have some actual scoring depth to support their big three.

4. Dallas Stars. It would not be an NHL offseason without general manager Jim Nill raising another offseason championship banner. Even if Joe Pavelski shows some signs of decline and regresses from his 38-goal output this past season he is still just what the league’s most top-heavy team needed.

5. Arizona Coyotes. Phil Kessel is the big, headline-grabbing addition but Carl Soderberg could be a nice depth pickup as well. Even if Kessel starts to slow down he should still be able to run the Coyotes’ power play and make a significant impact.

Teams that are probably better

6. Florida Panthers. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s contract will almost certainly be an albatross on their salary cap in the next three or four years and probably end up in a buyout, but he might get them to the playoffs a couple of times before that. Bobrovsky is the big name, but don’t sleep on Anton Stralman and Brett Connolly as depth additions.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs. Their salary cap concerns were always overblown and they were always going to find a way to get out of them. They not only shed a lot of bad contracts and almost certainly created enough space to re-sign Mitch Marner, but they also managed to add a much-needed top-defender in Barrie. Jason Spezza may not be what he once was, but he should be fine as a third-line center for this team.

8. Chicago Blackhawks. The worst defensive team in the league made two solid additions in Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan, then found a starting caliber goalie that just so happened to be a Vezina Trophy finalist this past season.

9. Minnesota Wild. Still do not understand the direction Paul Fenton has this team going in, but Mats Zuccarello is a definite upgrade in the short-term.

10. Nashville Predators. Matt Duchene is a nice addition and gives them another impact forward that might help a dreadful power play. So why only “probably” better? Because they had to trade an impact defender for almost nothing to be able to sign him. How much better you think the Predators are depends on whether or not you think they needed Duchene more than Subban. Or, probably more accurately, if you think Duchene is that much more valuable than Subban.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Good teams that have stayed the same

11. St. Louis Blues. It has been a quiet offseason for the champs, adding nothing of significance and losing nothing of significance. Nothing wrong with that when you are parading the Stanley Cup around.

12. Boston Bruins. The Bruins look to be returning mostly the same roster next season, and it will still be a Stanley Cup contender.

13. Carolina Hurricanes. Some musical chairs in net, but there should not be much of a drop off. The big win this offseason was Montreal helping them out with Sebastian Aho’s new contract.

14. Washington Capitals. Radko Gudas is probably a better player than Matt Niskanen at this stage of his career. Andre Burakovsky never panned out, but they made a couple of solid depth signings to fill his spot.

15. Calgary Flames. Still a potential Stanley Cup team with one pretty massive flaw in net.

Bad teams that are marginally better

16. Buffalo Sabres. Colin Miller, Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey are all solid additions for what amounts to very little in cost. That is the good news. The bad news this team still has a long way to go before it is a serious threat in the Atlantic Division or Eastern Conference Wild Card races.

17. Vancouver Canucks. J.T. Miller is pretty good and an upgrade for their forward group, but does this team, in this position, in this stage of its rebuild, need to be doing things like trading a future first-round draft pick or giving Tyler Myers a five-year, $30 million contract? It’s like … you’re kinda better, but what’s the point? The Jim Benning era, folks.

Good Teams that have gotten worse

18. Pittsburgh Penguins. Does swapping Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta for Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun, and Brandon Tanev move you closer to a Stanley Cup? You should have serious doubts about that. At least the speculation on trading Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang turned out to be just that and nothing ever came from it.

19. San Jose Sharks. Keeping Erik Karlsson is significant, but losing Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and returning the same starting goalie is also significant … for the wrong reasons.

20. Tampa Bay Lightning. The salary cap crunch and the RFA status of Brayden Point has resulted in some subtractions to the roster and no significant additions. That makes them a little worse simply by default, but they are still going to be one of the top teams in the league. Instead of 60 games, they might win … 50? 55?

21. Winnipeg Jets. I don’t really want to call Kevin Hayes a “loss” since he only played 20 regular season games with the team, but they have lost a lot off of their blue line with very little coming in to replace it.

22. Vegas Golden Knights. They are going to miss Colin Miller, and might really miss out on Nikita Gusev if they move him before they even realize what they had.

23. New York Islanders. They kept all of their key unrestricted free agent forwards, but going from Robin Lehner to Semyon Varlamov in net could be a huge downgrade. Given how important goaltending was to the Islanders’ success this past season that could be a problem.

24. Columbus Blue Jackets. The free agent exodus that everyone expected to happen took place with the departures of Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Duchene (and probably Ryan Dzingel). Gustav Nyquist is a fine pickup on a pretty fair deal, but they still lost a ton. And they still do not have a clear replacement for Bobrovsky.

Bad teams that have stayed the same 

25. Montreal Canadiens. The Aho offer sheet had us excited for about 20 minutes until we realized it was just a waste of everyone’s time. The only solution now is to try and offer sheet someone else!

26. Philadelphia Flyers. Kevin Hayes isn’t bad, but there is no way he plays out that seven-year contract in Philadelphia. They added Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen to their defense about four years after they should have. In the end, downgrading the defense (which I think they did) kind of cancels out whatever upgrade Hayes might be at forward. They have made a lot of transactions to remain right where they were.

27. Edmonton Oilers. Based on the moves this offseason (as well as the lack of moves) it seems likely that another prime season of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is about to be wasted. Such a shame.

28. Ottawa Senators. They brought in a bunch of new faces but nothing that is going to prevent this team from continuing to be one of the worst in the league.

29. Detroit Red Wings. Steve Yzerman has a lot of work to do and has been fairly quiet this summer.

30. Anaheim Ducks. They had to get rid of Corey Perry’s contract, but they still have a ton of money tied up in players on the wrong side of 30 (or very close to 30).

31. Los Angeles Kings. So far their effort to rebuild and get younger has involved trading Jake Muzzin and buying out Dion Phaneuf. The longer they drag their feet in gutting this roster the longer this team will remain in the basement.

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.