Colin Miller

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Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

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Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.

Sabres adding Miller doesn’t mean subtracting Ristolainen

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sabres general manager Jason Botterill disputed the speculation that adding defenseman Colin Miller in a trade with Vegas directly leads to Buffalo subtracting another defenseman such as Rasmus Ristolainen.

”There’s going to be rumors because he’s a player teams want to go after and teams want to have,” Botterill told reporters Saturday, a day after acquiring Miller .

”I think there’s always a demand for those,” he said, referring to Miller and Ristolainen both being right-shot defenseman and playing under reasonably priced contracts. ”I’m never going to be in a situation where I complain about too much depth.”

The Sabres suddenly have plenty of talent on defense after Miller became expendable in Vegas as a result of the salary cap-crunch facing the Golden Knights and their over-extended payroll. In acquiring a fourth-year player who combined for 13 goals and 70 points over his past two seasons, Buffalo gave up a 2021 second-round and 2022 fifth-round draft pick.

Miller has three years left on the $15.5 million contract he signed last summer.

Aside from Ristolainen, Miller joins a group of defenseman that includes rookie of the year finalist Rasmus Dahlin, Brandon Montour, Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella and restricted free agent Jake McCabe.

”Right now, to me, this gives us options,” Botterill said. ”We wanted to improve our competition and improve our depth, and that’s why we made the move.”

Ristolainen is the Sabres’ workhorse after topping 24 minutes of ice time per game for the fourth consecutive season last year. He has three years left on a six-year $32.4 million contract.

Injuries are an issue, with Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder) both expected to miss the start of next season.

Miller had what he called mixed emotions about being traded.

He’s going to miss Vegas, where he led the team’s defensemen with 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) in the Golden Knights’ inaugural season two years ago. On the upside, Miller looks to establish himself in a larger role with the Sabres after having an up-and-down season last year.

Another plus for Miller is he’ll no longer worry about being mentioned in trade rumors.

”I won’t be looking over my shoulder now at what Vegas is doing,” he said. ”Your focused on the opportunity that you now have moving forward. It’s definitely a good one here.”

Newly hired Sabres coach Ralph Krueger noted Miller fits his style of play, which is similar to the Golden Knights’ speedy, aggressive approach. With the Sabres in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought, Krueger also noted Miller having extensive playoff experience, including Vegas’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago.

NOTES: The Sabres top draft pick, center Dylan Cozens, will see a specialist Monday after hurting his left thumb during a three-on-three scrimmage in the final day of Buffalo’s rookie development camp. Cozens said the visit is precautionary and his thumb is not broken. … Cozens, selected seventh overall, is planning to return to his home in Canada’s Yukon Territory capital of Whitehorse to spend the summer. … ”It’s going to be pretty crazy,” Cozens said of the reception he expects after being only the third Yukon-born player ever drafted. ”Those are the people who helped me get where I am. And I’m going to give back to them for sure.”

Trade: Sabres improve defense with Colin Miller; Vegas saves money

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Not long ago, I shared my belief that NHL teams are more likely to improve through savvy trades, rather than free agent spending (especially for defense). Quite a few NHL GMs seem to agree.

The Buffalo Sabres made a shrewd decision on Friday, taking advantage of the Vegas Golden Knights’ salary cap bind by landing quality defenseman Colin Miller. (It probably didn’t hurt that Miller sometimes lands in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse, making it that much more imperative to move Miller.)

Here are the terms of the trade via TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who also reports that the call has been made official.

Sabres receive: Colin Miller.

Golden Knights get: 2021 second-round pick (St. Louis Blues’) and 2022 fifth-round pick.

Again, this is a situation where the Golden Knights needed to save money. While I’d argue that Miller is well worth $3.875 million per season (quality right-handed defensemen are hard to find), Miller was lost in the shuffle a bit in Vegas. Much like with the Brandon Montour trade, the Sabres need all the defensive help they can get, so Miller is quite the boon.

Miller is in his prime at 26, and his $3.875M cap hit runs through 2021-22, so if Miller can indeed rise to a top-four level, than the Sabres might have received a nice bargain here. With Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner combining for a $19M cap hit, Buffalo needs all the value it can get.

That brings us to an interesting side note: could this also open the opportunity for the Sabres to move divisive defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The 24-year-old struggles mightily in his own end, but there are likely those around the league that believe in his talent (and maybe their ability to improve his defensive play), so maybe someone would take on Ristolainen and his $5.4M cap hit, which expires after 2021-22? It’s conceivable that the Sabres could move Ristolainen for some help on offense, as the drop-off from the dynamic Eichel – Skinner duo to everyone else is jarringly steep.

(Naturally, if Buffalo can find a taker for Zach Bogosian‘s bloated $5.142M cap hit, that would be sweet, too.)

If not, the Sabres still stand to be better on defense, an area of glaring need. Different people can have different qualms with all of Ristolainen, Montour, and Miller, but it sure beats what they’ve slogged around the ice with before. Of course, the biggest factor remains Rasmus Dahlin, who was brilliant in 2018-19 and may only get better from there.

The Golden Knights basically had to do this, considering their cap clogging situation, what with Mark Stone‘s $9.5M and Max Pacioretty‘s $7M extension about to kick in. As fantastic as William Karlsson‘s freshly signed $5.9M really is considering this climate of escalating prices, the bottom line is that all that extra money is inevitably going to push good players like Miller out.

Miller is a luxury the Golden Knights could no longer afford, much like Erik Haula. It’s possible they have some prospects who can stem the tide.

That stings, but honestly, who would have expected the Golden Knights to be selling off talent because they have too much of this, so early in their existence?

Either way, brilliant work by Buffalo. The Sabres still have work to do, but this is another important step forward.

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.

Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents

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The bad news is that the free agent market for defensemen looks downright pitiful, especially after Erik Karlsson signed that big extension with the Sharks. The good news is that, if NHL GMs are bold and creative, they could make waves by adding defensemen via trades, instead.

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Update: It didn’t take long for a big domino to drop.

The Jets sent Jacob Trouba‘s rights to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and the 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, which was originally Winnipeg’s pick. This post goes deep on what that trade means for both teams.

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Sharks GM Doug Wilson himself stirred the pot about there at least being a bunch of trade discussions, and we’ve already seen interesting moves like the Matt NiskanenRadko Gudas swap between the Capitals and Flyers.

While there could be a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” element to Wilson’s comments … c’mon, it’s still fun to hear this, and ponder the possibilities:

 

Craig Custance laid out some of the potential trade scenarios at The Athletic (sub required), and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has also gone into plenty of detail regarding possible swaps, among others. It’s not a guarantee that any big trades will happen, but if they do, there’s a solid chance some will happen around draft weekend.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting names that have circulated. With all apologies to Jake Gardiner, you’ll notice that this list is infinitely more appealing than the potential crop of free agents.

P.K. Subban The Predators are coming off of a disappointing season, and it was a pretty rough one by Subban’s lofty standards.

There’s a mixture of sound and queasy logic to Nashville trading Subban. After all, P.K. is 30, and his $9 million cap hit is expensive. Moving that money out could allow the Predators to sign Matt Duchene, and Nashville is also eyeing Roman Josi‘s future, as the Swiss defenseman only has one year left at his current $6M clip. The queasy part is also that some don’t enjoy Subban’s personality, maybe because he cut a promo on them.

There are a lot of warning signs that the Predators could outsmart themselves here, particularly if Roman Josi is overrated – as some have intimated – but that’s a post for another day. Besides, those are worries for the Predators, not the potential team trying to swindle them out of Subban.

For a team with cap space, trading for P.K. could be a glorious investment.

Frankly, would it be that surprising if Subban rebounded in a big way next season? For all we know, his relative struggles in 2018-19 could just boil down to bad injury luck, rather than P.K. being hit by the aging curve.

The Devils stand out as an especially interesting trade party, as I’d argue that they should accelerate their growth process both to entice Taylor Hall to re-sign and to take advantage of the savings they’ll get with Jack Hughes’ (or Kaapo Kakko’s) entry-level contract.

But, really, any team with a glut of cap space and an urge to get better should pounce while Subban’s value is low.

Jacob Trouba – Speaking of taking advantage of a should-be Central Division powerhouse’s desperation, there are plenty of rumors about the Winnipeg Jets shopping Trouba’s RFA rights because of their cap crunch.

Those rumors start to blow my mind when you combine them with at least some talk of the Jets trying to retain Tyler Myers while losing Trouba, but much like the Predators possibly making a bad call, that’s not particularly relevant to teams who might try to land Trouba’s rights.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks notes that area teams like the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils rank among the teams trying to trade for the right to sign the 25-year-old defenseman, and understandably so. Trouba-level players just do not become available that often.

My suspicion is that Trouba might not have truly reached his ceiling, as he’s sometimes had to battle for opportunities with other Winnipeg RHD like Myers and especially Dustin Byfuglien. If I were the Jets, I’d try to bribe a rebuilding team to take on Dmitry Kulikov, or something of that nature, to find a way with Trouba.

That simply might not be in the cards, and other NHL teams should go the extra mile if Trouba’s rights are available.

Kris Letang – It’s tough to imagine a contender with an unclear window sending away a guy who’s easily their best defenseman, but Letang is one of the many prominent Penguins whose name has at least come up in rumblings, so he absolutely deserves a mention.

Yes, his injury history is a little scary and he’s already 32, but Letang brings so much value to the table, and at an affordable $7.25M cap hit through 2021-22, the potential rewards outweigh the risks. It would be surprising if the Penguins made this blunder, especially after they already thinned out the ranks with the (largely beneficial) Olli Maatta trade. Teams should check in with Jim Rutherford just in case, though.

Shayne Gostisbehere – P.K. Subban getting traded after a “down year” makes some sense because the aging curve is hovering as a threat, and Subban’s also very expensive. The Flyers selling low on “Ghost Bear” could be a borderline disaster … and thus, one other teams should go out of their way to facilitate.

Gostisbehere is still in the meat of his prime, and he’s not only a bargain at $4.5M per year, but he’s also cost controlled for some time, as his steal of a deal runs through 2022-23. It’s honestly almost a little bit offensive that Gostisbehere trade talk has circulated with credibility, rather than just being something you’d screengrab and mock from a message board.

Now, Custance notes that the Flyers aren’t that likely to trade Gostisbehere, but if there’s even a trace of smoke, other teams should try to fan those flames.

Justin Faulk / Dougie Hamilton – Now, the Hurricanes might just stick with their surplus of right-handed defensemen, as a Faulk extension has reportedly been discussed.

Yet, it still seems like a matter of time. Faulk’s getting a raise one way or another from his $4.833M after it expires next season, and Hamilton’s $5.75M cap hit only runs through 2020-21. It’s easy to see why Carolina might value swapping Faulk or Hamilton for a comparable forward (perhaps someone like Mike Hoffman?).

Personally, I prefer Hamilton, as he’s produced impressive numbers even though he inexplicably rarely finds himself as his team’s top power play QB. Like with Trouba, I wonder if another team or coach might get a little bit more out of Hamilton if they put them in the right situations.

Either way, both Faulk and Hamilton can improve a team’s blueline, and maybe at a comfortable price.

Colin Miller – While I can see situations where teams who trade for the players above would win the trades, possibly to a significant extent, I also acknowledge that you’d have to give up something substantial to land them.

Miller might be one of the most prominent candidates who could be landed in a pretty one-sided trade.

Miller, 26, found himself in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse at times in 2018-19, including being a healthy scratch at times during the postseason. After spending big money and assets to land Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty over the last year or so, the Golden Knights are now in a serious cap crunch, as they’ll need to find room to lock down William Karlsson and Nikita Gusev.

An opportunistic team could offer Vegas the chance to save Miller’s $3.875M (through 2021-22) and maybe get back some of the futures they coughed up in those deals — don’t forget all they gave up for Tomas Tatar. Such a scenario would be awfully appealing to Vegas, especially since it sure seems like Gallant won’t use Miller enough to justify that near-$4M price tag.

If you’re an NHL team aggressive to improve, but you don’t have the cap space for the bigger names (or want to spend less in a trade), then Miller could be a fantastic find.

Jared SpurgeonIn my opinion, the Wild would be wiser to go into a full rebuild.

That just doesn’t seem to be the case, as they’ve instead been making more “player-for-player” moves. Not all of those trades have been as bad as losing Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask, but either way, Minnesota’s strategy seems to be about half measures. They want to half-rebuild, and half … limp into the playoffs? It’s not ideal, is what I’m saying.

So Spurgeon (29, $5.188M) is a tricky expiring contract. The Wild want to be semi-competitive, so they might just want to re-sign him. If not, they also might want more than a poaching team would want to give up for Spurgeon, although a Hoffman-type expiring forward contract could make a swap somewhat reasonable.

A Spurgeon trade seems less like a “bang for the buck” deal, but he’s another interesting name, if truly available.

T.J. Brodie: Honestly, it’s tough to tell how good Brodie is, vs. how much he benefits from being glued to Mark Giordano at even-strength, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s teammate stats.

So, much like with Spurgeon, a lot of the trade appeal hinges on what the Flames are asking for Brodie (or, similarly, Travis Hamonic).

Brodie’s worth mentioning one way or another, because he’s a bit like Miller in being cheap, as Brodie’s at $4.65M for one more season. There are scenarios where trading for Brodie could make a lot of sense, if the Flames are more focused on freeing up cap space than they are getting maximum value for the defenseman.

Nikita Zaitsev: Tip to NHL GMs: don’t trade for Nikita Zaitsev.

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Again, it’s possible that none of these defensemen get traded, or totally different, star-level ones move on instead.

For the sake of our collective entertainment, it would certainly be cool if there were some splashy trades to consider. So, get to it, NHL GMs.

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.

Golden Knights even series with Sharks on night of wild swings

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This was a game of wild momentum swings and certainly had controversy, but when all was said-and-done, Vegas earned a 5-3 victory over San Jose to even the series at 1-1.

Early on, it didn’t look like this contest would be nearly as dramatic. Cody Eakin, Colin Miller, and Max Pacioretty each scored within the first 6:11 minutes of the game to chase Sharks goaltender Martin Jones.

Jones held his own in Game 1, but the 2018-19 campaign was a rough one for him and it raised questions about if the Sharks are truly a serious Stanley Cup contender with him between the pipes. Certainly this game did nothing to silence his critics, but San Jose’s night was far from over. With Aaron Dell now in net, the Sharks stormed back.

Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Joe Thornton scored within the span of just 2:09 minutes late in the first period and suddenly the game was actually tied going into the first intermission.

Things seemed to continue to go San Jose’s way when Brent Burns‘ shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury early in the second period. However, the goal was called back because Logan Couture’s elbow swung into Fleury’s head. The fact that the goal was waived off is something that most probably agree with, but it seems safe to say that Sharks fans and the Sharks themselves take issue with the goaltender inference penalty. To make matters worse for San Jose, that penalty proved to be critical as Mark Stone scored the game-winner on the subsequent power play.

Still, it would be wrong to suggest that San Jose was simply robbed Friday night, even if you do disagree with that call. The Sharks had eight power-play opportunities to Vegas’ three. Not only did San Jose only score on one of those power-play chances, but they surrendered two shorthanded goals, including one to William Karlsson at 7:35 of the third period to give the Golden Knights some breathing room.

Between Jones’ sloppy start and San Jose’s less than stellar showing when it came to special teams, it’s not hard to see how Vegas won this one.

Sharks-Golden Knights Game 3 from T-Mobile Arena will be Sunday night at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.