Erik Johnson

Landeskog the hockey horse out of Breeders’ Cup Sprint

ARCADIA, Calif. — Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson won’t have a rooting interest in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Landeskog, a 3-year-old gelding co-owned by Johnson, has been scratched from the six-furlong race because trainer Doug O’Neill wasn’t happy with how he trained Tuesday.

O’Neill says a nuclear scan and X-rays on Landeskog came back clean, but he still decided to pass on Saturday’s race.

O’Neill says Johnson and the other owners ”made it easy to do the right thing. They said the horse comes first.”

Landeskog was 12-1 on the morning line. He’s named after Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog.

NBC Sports this weekend presents 10.5 hours of live coverage of the 2019 Breeders’ Cup World Championships – the richest two days in horse racing – with $30 million in prize money at stake. Highlighting the coverage is the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic this Saturday, Nov. 2, live from Santa Anita at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

On Friday and Saturday, NBC Sports presents live coverage of 13 races at the 36th Breeders’ Cup World Championships on NBC and NBCSN.

Sidney Crosby bamboozles Avs with absurd backhand goal

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The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-2 in overtime on Wednesday, with hockey fans being treated to some Sidney Crosby vs. Nathan MacKinnon.

Now, with hockey, you don’t always get to see two superstars actually face off, as coaches sometimes avoid best-on-best matchups. Delightfully, we’ve seen Crosby vs. MacKinnon quite a bit through the early stages of Wednesday’s games, and both have managed to dazzle.

… Crosby’s won the first round, though. He set up some great chances with pinpoint passes to Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel, but the Penguins couldn’t get on the board until Crosby took things into his own (back)hands. In a truly mind-blowing display of skill and timing, Crosby corralled a bouncing puck, beat Erik Johnson and Samuel Girard‘s pokecheck attempt, and then waited out Philipp Grubauer to score a highlight-reel goal.

MacKinnon, meanwhile, is off to tougher start. That’s mainly because of a debatable hit by Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist:

MacKinnon seemed shaken up by the hit, yet he didn’t appear to leave the Avs’ bench. Sometimes we see players realize that they were injured after the adrenaline of game action wears off, so this is a situation to watch. (Ed Olczyk mentioned that MacKinnon was “laboring” early in the second period.

On one hand, MacKinnon struggled at times …

On the other, he managed to score later in the game, so who knows if there will be lingering issues?

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.

Trading Tyson Barrie sounds like a bad idea for Avalanche

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This already-fascinating offseason serves as a warning to NHL teams: be proactive with key players’ next contracts, because if you leave it until the last minute, you could get burned.

Look at what almost feels like city-wide anxiety in Toronto over the RFA future of young star Mitch Marner. Soak in the agonizingly paltry return the Jets received for Jacob Trouba, which was maybe bound to be bad.

Yet, sometimes when a trend forms, there’s also a risk of overcorrection. The Colorado Avalanche face a risk if they get too hasty and trade underrated defenseman Tyson Barrie.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun passes along word (sub required for full post) from at least one anonymous Eastern Conference executive that the Avalanche are at least listening to offers about Barrie, a 27-year-old defenseman whose bargain $5.5 million cap hit expires after the 2019-20 season. LeBrun didn’t indicate that a trade is necessarily imminent, but added, “it certainly sounds possible.”

Now, let me say this before I dive deeper: there are scenarios where it could make sense to trade Tyson Barrie.

Someone like Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers might make sense, as he’s young, and not only similarly priced, but locked up at $6M AAV through 2024-25. Ehlers would be a wonderful fit for a Colorado offense that could use some support beyond their mega top line, and his wonderful transition skills would be absolutely terrifying in high-elevation home games in Colorado.

(Seriously, if that happens, pray for any defensemen without the cardio of an elite cyclist.)

But, occasional examples aside … I can’t say I love the logic of moving Barrie, especially if it’s about the Avalanche’s blueline being too crowded with right-handed defensemen, as LeBrun indicates because of Cale Makar (he’s very good!) and Erik Johnson (eh).

First, consider that Barrie is really good, and then realize that the Avalanche are in a situation where they can almost certainly afford to extend him.

Barrie good

The Avalanche have been crawling back up to relevance in recent years, which means that people have probably been sleeping on just how strong a player Barrie is, particularly at that affordable $5.5M clip.

Last season, Barrie generated an outstanding 14 goals and 59 points in 78 games, hitting 14 goals and 50+ points for the second season in a row (he managed 57 points in 2017-18, which is actually pretty astounding because he only played in 68 games). Barrie hit 53 points in 2014-15, so while his numbers are undoubtedly juiced a bit by being the guy often on the ice when Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are ruling the world, it’s not as though Barrie is a mere bystander.

Since 2013-14, Barrie’s 294 points ranks eighth among NHL defensemen, tying him with P.K. Subban (in one fewer game played), and leaving Barrie ahead of the likes of Torey Krug, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo. If you look at the past two seasons, Barrie’s 116 points ranks him sixth among blueliners, and just one behind Victor Hedman.

Chances are, a lot of hockey fans didn’t know that Barrie has been that prolific, and he isn’t just scoring points. Barrie passes just about every test, often with flying colors.

You can see that he’s an important all-around defenseman when you ponder routinely strong possession stats, particularly compared to Avalanche teammates. If you prefer a visual aid, consider how he compares on this GAR chart (visualization by Sean Tierney, data by Evolving Hockey), which also speaks kindly to Samuel Girard‘s impact:

Barrie outclasses Erik Johnson in the transition game, already, and that should only become more pronounced as the two age (Barrie, again, is 27, while Johnson is 31).

Maybe you can get really granular and claim that Barrie isn’t as strong defensively as (insert high-profile defenseman), but you’d really have to start stretching to find ways to badmouth a player who’s just … really good.

And, here’s a rule of thumb: teams probably shouldn’t trip over their feet trying to find ways to get rid of their really good players. That might sound painfully obvious, but NHL teams sometimes make moves that defy logic, so it has to be said.

Because, frankly, the Avalanche are in a great position to just keep Barrie around, and bask in the competitive advantage.

Plenty of space, and plenty more opening up

One thing that’s really exciting about the Avalanche is that, thanks to MacKinnon’s outrageous bargain contract, Gabriel Landeskog still being affordable for a bit, Philipp Grubauer being primed to provide very nice value for two more seasons, and one year of Barrie, they really have a lot of values on their books.

While Rantanen’s second contract will certainly be a steep upgrade, the Avalanche are still in a pretty comfortable place, as Cap Friendly estimates their pre-Rantanen cap space at a bit more than $36 million, assuming it lands at $82M.

Even with Rantanen primed to possibly bump that space closer to $26M, the Avalanche are in an enviable cap situation both now, and really in the next few years.

Along with best-in-class bargains for the likes of MacKinnon, the Avalanche also: get two more entry-level years out of Makar, one more out of Girard, and also stand to get below-market value from the fourth overall pick of 2019, whether that prospect makes the immediate jump or Colorado has them marinate at a lower level for a year or two.

If that isn’t enough to impress upon the Avalanche that they should be adding, not subtracting a player like Barrie, consider some of the less-ideal money that will go away. Carl Soderberg‘s $4.75M is gone after 2019-20, while Ian Cole ($4.25M) and Matt Calvert ($2.85M) see deals expire after 2020-21.

Carl Soderberg at $4.75M is simply too much, but that deal goes away after next season. Ian Cole is also an issue at $4.25M, but only through 2020-21. Even Matt Calvert’s $2.85M through 2020-21 will be better used elsewhere. That’s almost $12M that can go toward new deals for Barrie, Makar, and other younger players.

So … if the Avalanche can trade Barrie for a comparable player, shouldn’t they just keep Barrie around? Really, shouldn’t they be eager to do so? Defensemen like Barrie don’t exactly grow on trees.

Really, if anything, the Avalanche should be exploring avenues to move Johnson, instead. At 31, his value is only likely to decline, so the already-shaky prospect of paying him $6M gets pretty scary as it goes along, being that Johnson’s deal runs through 2022-23. Traditional-thinking NHL teams love big tough defensemen with pedigree, so it wouldn’t be that shocking if the Avs were able to get the first pick of the 2006 NHL Draft off of their books in hopes of keeping younger, faster, better players.

***

Barrie isn’t a household name, even in many hockey households, but he’s an excellent defenseman. For a young, speedy team like the Avalanche, he’s honestly an incredible fit.

Sometimes there are fair deals out there, and Barrie would likely draw interest. It’s just uncomfortably easy to imagine the Avalanche on the wrong end of such a trade.

Then again, the Avalanche have taken lemons and made lemonade, such as with the staggeringly brilliant return for Matt Duchene, so maybe they’d win an Ehlers trade, too? Colorado is on the short list of teams that might actually pull that off … but generally speaking, I’d just try to keep Barrie around.

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Blues, Bruins built without luxury of top pick

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The St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins have a lot of people to thank for reaching the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, and both organizations can probably start with their scouting and player development staffs.

When looking at the construction of both rosters they share a common trait in how they were built.

That trait is that neither team has a player on their roster that they selected with one of the first three picks in the NHL draft. Not a single one. The highest pick that either team used on a player was the Blues’ selection of defender Alex Pietrangelo with the No. 4 overall pick all the way back in 2008.

Their next highest selection after him: 14th overall.

It is worth pointing out that the Blues did have the No. 1 overall pick in 2006 (13 years ago!), which they used to select defender Erik Johnson. But Johnson was traded after just three seasons with the team for a package of players that included Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart. Neither player from that trade remains on the roster today. If you wanted to follow the trade tree from there, Shattenkirk was eventually traded to the Capitals two years ago as a pending free agent for a collection of assets that included a first-round pick. The Blues then used that pick as part of a larger trade for Brayden Schenn.

But that is really digging deep and they had to give up a lot of other assets to get Schenn.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Bruins, meanwhile, do not have a single player anywhere on their roster that was selected higher than 14th in any draft.

They did select Tyler Seguin No. 2 overall in 2010 (after acquiring that pick as part of the Phil Kessel trade with Toronto Maple Leafs) but he was traded after the 2012-13 season and they literally have nothing remaining in their entire organization to show for that trade. Today, it is as if that trade never even happened.

This is all pretty unheard of in recent NHL history as each of the past 10 Stanley Cup winners has had at least one top-three pick (a pick that they used on the player) playing on their roster.

The most recent one that did not have such a player was the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings.

Here is a quick look at every Stanley Cup winner dating back to the 1994-95 season and how many of them had at least one top-three selection on their roster.

Not only do almost all of them have a top-three pick, those players were among the best, most important, and most valuable players on their rosters.

Couple of things worth noting on the teams that had “none.”

  • The 2006-07 Ducks did not have a top-three pick of their own, but they did eventually acquire the Hall of Fame defense pairing of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, both of whom were top-three picks.
  • The 1997-98, 1998-99, and 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings also had no top-three selections of their own (Steve Yzerman at No. 4 overall was their highest pick) but did have Brendan Shanahan who had previously been a No. 2 overall pick by the New Jersey Devils.

So even though those teams didn’t have the luxury of making such a pick themselves, they still had top-three pick talents on their roster. If the Blues end up winning this series they would fall into this category as they have defender Jay Bouwmeester (No. 3 overall pick by the Florida Panthers in 2002) on their roster.

The only teams during that stretch that won the Stanley Cup without having a single player that was ever selected that high were the aforementioned Red Wings team in 2008, as well as the 1995-96 and 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche teams.

There is a reason why bad teams, and especially fans of bad teams, want to finish near the bottom of the standings and desperately hope for some luck in the draft lottery. You need superstar players to win, and the best and easiest way to get a superstar player is to get them at the top of the draft. That is where you get the true franchise-changing players, and that is especially valuable in the salary cap era where you get them under team control for so many years and so cheaply and below market value in the first few years of their career.

It was a little easier to win without those high picks in the pre-cap era because teams could, in theory, do what Detroit and Colorado did and acquire pretty much anyone they wanted as long as they wanted to spend the money. It is a little tougher to assemble that much talent today from outside your organization.

The Bruins are an especially interesting case because, again, the only top-15 picks on their roster are Charlie McAvoy (No. 14 overall in 2016) and Jake DeBrusk (No. 14 overall in 2015). Some of their best players were selected far later than you would expect franchise players to be drafted. Patrice Bergeron was a second-round pick in 2003. David Krejci was a second-round pick in 2004. Brad Marchand was a third-round pick in 2006. David Pastrnak was picked No. 25 overall in 2014. They also do not have a single player on their roster that was selected higher than 14th by any other team. They simply have zero top picks on their roster.

This probably is not a model that is going to be easily duplicated by anyone else, because not every team is going to be fortunate enough to find that many draft steals in such a short period of time. But the Bruins (and Blues) have made it work and found a way to take a slightly different path to the Stanley Cup Final.

Blues-Bruins Game 2 is Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET from TD Garden on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

MORE BRUINS-BLUES GAME 2:
• 
Robert Thomas sidelined for Blues
• 
Three keys for Game 2 of Stanley Cup Final 
• 
Blues expect to be a lot better
• Unflappable Binnington won’t be affected by Stanley Cup spotlight

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.

Grubauer shuts out Sharks to lead Avs in hard-fought Game 4 win

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The San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche feature two high-powered offenses and up until now the series has reflected it. Game 4 on Thursday was a far more defensive-minded contest though and in the end it was the Avalanche that edged out with a 3-0 final to even the series.

The first half of the game went by without a single goal. The Sharks and Avalanche were largely even in play as well on the scoresheet to that point, but Nathan MacKinnon finally gave Colorado an edge at 10:34 of the second period. Appropriately for this game, the goal was the result of persistence. MacKinnon tried to whack a rebound twice before it finally got by Sharks goaltender Martin Jones.

Special teams also worked in the Avalanche’s favor. They successfully killed two San Jose power plays, including one that trickled into the start of the third period. Meanwhile, Colin Wilson scored a power-play goal at 3:11 of the third to give Colorado some breathing room. At 18:51, Erik Johnson fired a shot from the other end of the ice that went into the empty net to push the game to 3-0.

Certainly Jones had a rough regular season and he’s struggled at times during the 2019 playoffs, but this loss wasn’t his fault. Neither of the Avalanche’s goals on him made him look bad and Jones also made some big saves. Philipp Grubauer really stepped up Thursday night though, stopping 32 shots.

Obviously, the Sharks couldn’t do enough offensively, but their penalty problems in the third certainly didn’t help. San Jose was assessed four minor penalties in the third period. At one point in the middle of the period, the Sharks were briefly down two men. It’s hard to turn a game around when you’re spending so much time shorthanded.

This is the second time San Jose has been shutout in the 2019 playoffs. The last time came in Game 4 against Vegas, which put the Golden Knights up 3-1 in that series. The Sharks aren’t in as much trouble in this series, but they can nevertheless take comfort in the fact that they bounced right back with a 5-2 win against Vegas in Game 5.

Avalanche-Sharks Game 5 from SAP Center will be Saturday 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.