Dave Tippett

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.

Edmonton Oilers: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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 Edmonton Oilers.

We didn’t see Draisaitl’s peak in 2018-19

Last season, Leon Draisaitl adjusted what we believed to be his ceiling. It was already clear that he was a gem for Edmonton before, but a 50-goal, 105-point season? That was more than many projected.

And it wasn’t even the most he’s capable of. Draisaitl put himself in the Maurice Richard Trophy race with 43 goals in 2019-20, while he remarkably reached 110 points despite the season hitting that mid-March pause.

If you translate 110 points in 71 games to an 82-game season, Draisaitl would’ve reached 127-128.

The larger Hart Trophy debate can be a little thorny.

And it’s true that Draisaitl’s been living large on puck luck for two seasons now. He generated a 21.6 shooting percentage in 2018-19 and a 19.7 percent rate this season, while enjoying high on-ice shooting percentages too (12.4 in 2018-19, 14.4 in 2019-20, vs. 10.6 for his career). But it seems clear that he’s going to be a nightmare for defenses to deal with, whether he lines up with Connor McDavid or drives his own trio.

(Interestingly, evidence points to Edmonton being better off keeping their two mega-powers together.)

The Oilers dominating on special teams definitely ranks among surprises

With McDavid and Draisaitl on the roster, it’s not that surprising to see a dominant Oilers power play.

Granted, leading the league in PPG (59) with far and away the most efficient unit (29.5 percent, Boston second at 25.2) was a surprise. (After all, the Oilers managed a 21.17 rate in 2018-19, and was putrid at 14.76 at 2017-18.)

But the Oilers being so stingy on the penalty kill ended up being one of their biggest surprises. Edmonton tied with Columbus for the least power-play goals allowed (31) this season, while the Oilers’ 84.4 percent kill rate was second-best in the NHL. (For all that went wrong for the Sharks, theirs was the best at 85.7.)

Combining special teams percentages only tells you so much, but it’s a quick way to illustrate just how exemplary Edmonton’s units were. If you add that PP% (29.5) to that PK% (84.4), you get 113.9. The Bruins (109.4) and to a lesser extent Hurricanes (106.3) were the only other teams really in the Oilers’ ballpark.

McDavid + Draisaitl with semi-competent supporting cast members figures to be a formula for a strong power play most seasons. Maybe not “flirting with 30 percent” strong, but strong nonetheless.

Repeating such penalty kill success seems unlikely, however. Maybe Dave Tippett can manufacture at least a decent unit most seasons, though?

Oilers struggle enough at even strength to nearly negate positive surprises

One knock on Draisaitl’s Hart argument is that the Oilers give up almost as much as they create with him on the ice. The high-event back-and-forth is illustrated graphically by Draisaitl’s RAPM chart at Evolving Hockey:

Oilers surprises Draisaitl give and take

Even that vaunted power play drives home the risk-reward point. The Oilers allowed 10 shorthanded goals this season, tied for third-most in the NHL.

Despite Draisaitl enjoying an incredible season, McDavid being McDavid aside from an injury absence, and possibly unsustainable special teams dominance, the Oilers only managed a modest +8 goal differential in 2019-20.

What happens if Draisaitl cools off a bit, and they stop getting so many saves on the PK?

It’s foolish to fully dismiss any team with McDavid and Draisaitl on hand, particularly since the Oilers boast a few other helpful factors (including intriguing defensive prospects Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg). Still, those two carry such a burden, and the Oilers have enjoyed enough luck in certain areas, that one can’t help but wonder if disappointments will be more abundant than positive surprises in the near future.

MORE ON THE OILERS

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.

There’s plenty to be thankful for in hockey in 2019

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It’s Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. and it’s a quiet slate with only one game tonight. That leaves plenty of time for turkey, sides and lots and lots of dessert.

With it being a day to give thanks, some of the the NBCSports.com NHL staff wanted to say what we’re thankful for in 2019.

Please do let us know what you’re thankful for in the comments.

Sean Leahy, PHT Writer

Jaromir Jagr. He’s still playing hockey at age 47 and hopefully is able to fulfill his promise of playing beyond 50. His second tenure in the NHL ended abruptly thanks to injury, but No. 68 continues to give us a tiny slimmer of hope he may want to make another comeback before he hits 60.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It’s must-watch TV when those two are on the ice, especially in overtime when you know Dave Tippett is playing them for its entirety.

Offside reviews. Because they continue to suck the life out of games and bring people over to the side of hoping one day a “no offside” policy is installed, helping bump up offense around the league.

• NHL teams going retro. Whenever a team brings back a retro jersey design that everyone loves, they’re basically saying, “Sorry for all those crappy ones we put out since we originally debuted these beauties years ago!”

• The spreading out of outdoor hockey. Who would have thought a decade ago we’d see an outdoor game in Texas? Maybe there’s one coming to Carolina in the year or two. Vegas? Florida? The league is expanding the list of areas that may host an outdoor game, which is a good thing. It’s a different vibe in person, a fun one, and more fans around the NHL should be able to experience that.

James O’Brien, PHT Writer

I’m thankful for the Maple Leafs under Sheldon Keefe. They feel a lot like a wild turkey allowed to roam free after being caged for far too long. Will they eventually prove that they can fly? We’ll see, but it will be fun to watch them try.

The sheer speed of Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, and how even micromanaging coaches can’t really slow them down. They basically warp everything on the ice like Sauron on a battlefield.

Scott Charles, PHT Writer

• Dave Tippett. Connor McDavid is a generational talent and deserves to be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs year in and year out. For too long, the Edmonton Oilers would miss the postseason preventing the most talented player from reaching his full potential. Every NHL fan does not have to root for the Oilers, but seeing the brightest star have the opportunity to play in the most critical moments is good for spectators of the NHL. Hopefully Leon Draisaitl and McDavid have the chance to add to Edmonton’s rich history.

• New Video Review Rules. I am especially grateful that coaches cannot challenge plays without weighing the risk of a penalty. In the past, anyone could challenge a play without any consequence and often requested reviews if the play was close and a call might go their way if the stars were aligned. However, now a coach must believe he is right before forcing a delay in the action.

Adam Gretz, PHT Writer

I am thankful for Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith playing so good in the Edmonton net that we might finally get to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play in the playoffs again and shine on the NHL’s biggest stage.

Also for David Pastrnak leading the league in goals and actually allowing one of my bold predictions to finally come true.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Hockey Editor

That the NHL and NHLPA decided in September not to reopen the CBA, allowing for NHL hockey to be uninterrupted through the 2021-22 season.

That the person drafting first picked Nikita Kucherov this season in one of my leagues, allowing me to take Connor McDavid.

NBC Sports presents the 2019 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown this Black Friday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC, when league-leading goal scorer David Pastrnak and the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins host Artemi Panarin and the New York Rangers, marking the first of 12 NHL games that will air on NBC during the 2019-20 regular season.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call the 2019 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown. NBC Sports brings NHL Live on the road for Friday’s game, with Kathryn Tappen hosting studio coverage on-site from TD Garden alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

You can watch a livestream of the game here.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Canucks, Oilers are getting great goaltending so far

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When an NHL season is young, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that “This is the year,” or that a great season is going to come tumbling down. Sometimes those assumptions end up being correct, but it’s often far too easy to be roped in by a strong sprint and forget how much of a marathon an 82-game season can be.

Well-oiled machine … running a bit on luck

The Edmonton Oilers came into 2019-20 with very low expectations, yet they’re off to a hot start, even after falling 1-0 in a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

It’s been easy to focus on Edmonton’s skaters for much of the Oilers’ 7-1-1 start.

How could you not, really, with Connor McDavid looking even better than usual, Leon Draisaitl seemingly continuing to prove that he’s probably worth more than his $8.5 million AAV, and James Neal getting off to such a strong start that he’s already blown away his 2018-19 goal totals from that disastrous year with the Flames?

This strong start isn’t just about that, though.

Still-new head coach Dave Tippett made his reputation on insulating goalies with great defense, so he’s probably most excited about strong early returns in that area.

It’s too early to say that GM Peter Chiarelli should feel vindicated for the baffling final move of his run, as he signed Mikko Koskinen to a risky contract basically right before he got a pink slip. But there’s little denying that Koskinen is off to a strong start. The 31-year-old has a marvelous .934 save percentage and 4-0-0 record so far.

Tippett’s old buddy Mike Smith tended net on Friday, and produced what was likely the best game of his run with the Oilers. Yes, the Jets won 1-0 via a shootout, but Smith stopped all 23 shots he faced between regulation and a scintillating 3-on-3 OT period; 10 of those saves came on power play opportunities, as the Jets went 0-for-4.

Watch this sequence as Mark Scheifele makes a ridiculous move, Smith beats him, and Connor Hellebuyck stops Connor McDavid:

Smith is now at 3-1-1, and brought a .917 save percentage into Sunday, so he’s combined with Koskinen to help Edmonton be very stingy.

We’ve already seen Oilers scorers cool down ever so slightly from unsustainable paces, as McDavid sits at 17 points despite going pointless the past two games. Edmonton has to be delighted to manage three of four standings points during these rare pointless McDavid games, but it’s a reminder that they’re going to need more from other players.

Chances are, they won’t get this sort of elite goaltending over and over again, either. That said, if Tippett can figure out a way to get enough stops, the occasional grind-it-out win (or even “charity point”), and then ride some token “McDavid being five strides ahead of the world” games, Edmonton might just be able to make the most of this 7-1-1 start.

Canucks could also rise

After beginning the season 0-2-0, the Canucks have won five of their last six games, pushing their 2019-20 record to 5-3-0. That included a Sunday matinee win where they beat the Rangers 3-2 thanks to 38 saves by Jacob Markstrom.

Vancouver shares a promising development in common with Edmonton in net. Not only are both teams getting strong goaltending; they’re also getting great early play from two different goaltenders. In the Canucks’ case, it’s holdover starter Markstrom (2-2-0, but with a strong .926 save percentage) and potential goalie of the future Thatcher Demko (2-1-0 with a fabulous .943 save percentage).

While Markstrom’s .912 save percentage from 2018-19 won’t wow many, he managed those numbers on a team that really struggled in its own end, and you can see that he was a pretty good difference-maker from various metrics, including Sean Tierney’s goals saved above expectation chart, which uses data from Evolving Hockey:

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The Canucks and Oilers are riding some hot streaks right now, with Edmonton in particular profiting in the standings. We’re almost certain to see those goalies cool off, and even McDavid may not be able to score almost two points per game.

But can Travis Green and Dave Tippett manufacture above-average goaltending from their rotations for enough of 2019-20 to bring one or both of their teams to the playoffs? Stranger things have happened, and few positions in sports are as strange — and important — as goaltending tends to be in the NHL.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL on NBCSN: Oilers’ Neal comfortable again in bounce-back season

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Dave Tippett flew to Toronto in August to see a player he coached as a rookie and was now getting the opportunity to do so again a decade later. It was in 2008-09 that the Edmonton Oilers head coach, in his final season with the Dallas Stars, was introduced to a young winger with promise.

James Neal scored 24 goals in his first NHL season, and followed that up with 48 over his next 157 NHL games. He made his mark and let it be known he was a goal scorer at this level, one you can count for at least 20 a year. He did that, consistently, for his first 10 seasons, including hitting 40 while with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12 and 31 in his second year with the Nashville Predators.

The goals kept coming in each of his first four NHL stops, but 2018-19 was clearly the aberration year. After playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, Neal found himself in Calgary uncomfortable. Two straight short summers left his body beat up a bit and didn’t allow him the time for a proper training schedule he felt he needed in order to be ready. It showed in the results.

While the Flames were having success, Neal was struggling. Mightily. In 63 games he only scored seven times and his shooting percentage, which was a career 12.7% entering last season, tumbled down to 5%.

Change was needed and Neal was happy to move on to a new opportunity, thanks to Milan Lucic.

“I think we both just needed a fresh start,” Neal said last week. “I appreciate he had to waive his no-trade clause for us to switch spots. I thank him for that.”

When Tippett met with Neal over the summer, he saw a player who was motivated to erase a forgettable year and a player who had plenty to prove. Through six games, the “real deal” is back to his old self with an NHL-best eight goals.

“I give him credit. He’s come in here, he’s a real energized player, he’s helped our group,” said Tippett. “Not just scoring goals but giving us some juice in the locker room.”

“I’ve scored my whole career,” Neal said after netting four against the New York Islanders last week. “I’ve put pressure on myself to be a goal scorer and wanted that pressure. Last year was a tough year and I wanted a chance prove myself and obviously things worked out in the summer with the trade.”

Motivated, Neal put in another summer training with former NHLer Gary Roberts, who’s become one of the go-to workout gurus for hockey players. The two have worked together since Neal was 15, 

That was the physical part. The on-ice part was a simple change in his positioning. Neal started to rely too much on his shot, feeling his natural scoring ability would succeed more often than not. Last season it clearly didn’t. Neal found himself straying further from the net, leading to low-percentage shot attempts. He focused on what worked in the past: getting to those “dirty” areas of the ice for rebounds, redirects, tip-ins, and higher-percentage shots. That works, especially on the power play, as six of his eight goals so far have come with the man advantage.

“He’s around the net,” said Oilers coach Dave Tippett. “Look where he scores from. He’s around the net and the puck’s finding him.”

Indeed. Look where he scored from. Using IcyData’s shot map data, you can see where the concentration of Neal’s shots have come from dating back to the 2016-17 season, when he netted 23 goals. 

2016-17 Even Strength
2017-18 Even Strength
2018-19 Even Strength

Now we come to this season, and while still early, you can see that Neal is finding his spot — mostly on the power play — and capitalizing.

(L) 2019-20 Even Strength / (R) 2019-20 Power Play

The success on the power play for Neal is a result from all of the extra attention placed on Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. His left-handed shot, as well as McDavid being a lefty, has opened up space for better opportunities with the man advantage. In Calgary, Neal played a total of 17:49, per Natural Stat Trick, with the Flames’ top power play unit. He’s already up to 21:04 with Oilers after being given the chance due to an illness that sidelined Alex Chiasson at the start of the season.

Neal’s low shooting percentage and history of scoring goals made him an easy bounce-back candidate for this season. He’s in a situation where he’s set up to succeed. Playing for a coach who knows him; sought after by an organization that had confidence in him; and getting the opportunities to further erase the memory of last season. He needed the change of scenery and as he puts it, he’s having fun playing hockey again.

“That’s why we got him,” said Draisaitl. “Nealer’s a goal scorer and he’s done that so far. It’s great to see.”

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Wednesday with analysts Patrick Sharp, Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro will have the call of Flyers-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.