George McPhee

Our Line Starts podcast: Struggling Lightning, Penguins; George McPhee interview

In the debut episode, Pierre McGuire interviews George McPhee of the Vegas Golden Knights, while Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones react to the biggest news from Week 1 in the NHL. Is the sky falling in Tampa? Can the Penguins overcome Evgeni Malkin‘s long-term injury? Jones and Roenick also dive into the Matthew Tkachuk-Drew Doughty rivalry and talk about the best individual battles of their careers.

Rundown:
0:00-1:10 Intro
1:10-4:35 Pressure already mounting in Tampa Bay
4:35-9:20 Is Pittsburgh’s playoff streak in jeopardy?
9:20-12:25 Drew DoughtyMatthew Tkachuk rivalry
12:25-14:45 JR’s battle with Craig Berube
14:45-18:00 Jones gets under Steve Thomas’ skin
18:00-20:05 “Would you fight Tie Domi?”
20:05-35:30 Pierre McGuire interviews George McPhee
35:35-42:30 Patrick Roy impersonator trash talks the guys

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mark Stone faces new pressures as highest-paid Golden Knight

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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 Vegas Golden Knights.

One of the many interesting things about the Golden Knights is that, through their first two years, they did a lot by committee. There wasn’t a “face of the franchise” beyond the smiling visage of Marc-Andre Fleury, and by the nature of the goalie position, Fleury could let the game come to him, rather than being expected to exert his will.

Don’t get this as a jab at the talent Vegas assembled with astonishing speed, mind you. It’s merely that the face of the franchise was more of a cerberus, maybe the three-headed monster of a top line in William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith.

It feels strange to say this since Mark Stone‘s only been with the Golden Knights since that momentous trade from late February, but this is now in many ways “his team.”

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three QuestionsX-factor]

Simply put, Stone signed on for a lot of pressure when he agreed to a mammoth eight-year, $76 million extension, and it makes a lot of sense that he’ll be under plenty of it in 2019-20, as he’ll be paid $12M between signing bonuses and his base salary.

Now, it’s true that Stone has become used to being a go-to guy, as he certainly played that part with the Ottawa Senators, right down to being the person who answered a lot of questions for Sens teammates who were caught blasting coaches in a video of a leaked Uber gripe session. At least he got plenty of “media training” in Ottawa.

But expectations have a way of ratcheting up the intensity.

Stone spent the past season making $7.35M after the Senators enjoyed the stunning steal of Stone only carrying a $3.5M cap hit from 2015-16 through 2017-18. Considering the term and the top dollar of a new Stone deal kicking in, few will be making arguments about him being underpaid any longer, and you might struggle to make an argument for underrated.

The bar has been raised in ways that go beyond the financial, too.

Despite the Golden Knights merely entering their third season in the NHL, people aren’t going to be looking at this team as scrappy underdogs like they often did with the Senators. This is a team with win-now aspirations, so if Vegas sputters, Stone will be a natural scapegoat as their biggest earner.

Speaking of win-now, it’s also clear that the Golden Knights carved up pieces of their future to be a more impressive team in the present, and Stone is the biggest example of that mindset, along with what Vegas had given up before for the likes of Max Pacioretty and Tomas Tatar.

Erik Brannstrom was (and is) a coveted defensive prospect, and if he continues to impress in conjunction with any Golden Knights struggles, then things could get a little awkward — even if Brannstrom’s potential continues to be seen mostly outside of the NHL. That’s the tricky thing for players involved in trades: they’re not judged by individual efforts and their team’s results alone, but they’re also compared to the player they were trade for, and how their former team performs.

The good news is that it sure seems like Stone can handle it.

And maybe just as importantly, Stone can bring value to the table even if he goes through cold streaks scoring-wise. We actually saw that right off the bat when he joined the Golden Knights in 2019-20, as he only managed a single assist through his first four games, and took six to record his first goal for Vegas.

Even then, Stone was making a positive impact with his two-way play, and few remember those early struggles thanks to the impact he made during the Golden Knights’ memorable Round 1 series against the Sharks. If you’re going to commit a $9.5M cap hit and bunch of term to any type of forward, you could do a lot worse than a winger who justifiably generates a ton of Selke hype as an all-around dynamo.

Stone should face a lot of pressure in 2019-20, with some anxieties being new, and others familiar. He’s generally well-equipped to hurdle over these obstacles, but that doesn’t make any of this easy.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Trade: Clarkson contract back to Toronto; Vegas opens up space

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Nostalgia is in the air, as “The Lion King” remake is in theaters, so maybe it’s time to cue “The Circle of Life.”

In a peculiar bit of salary cap management, David Clarkson – er, David Clarkson’s contract – and the Toronto Maple Leafs are back together again. While Garret Sparks goes to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Maple Leafs receive a fourth-round pick for their troubles.

Maple Leafs get: Clarkson’s contract ($5.25M for one more season), Vegas 2020 fourth-round pick.

Golden Knights receive: Cap relief even though they were going to send Clarkson to LTIR; a decent goalie consideration with Garret Sparks.

This is all about cap and asset management for both teams.

Clarkson was headed to LTIR whether his contract stayed in Vegas or matriculated to Toronto, and now his deal can be neighbors with Nathan Horton after they were exchanged. The Maple Leafs still have some work to do, naturally, as they need to fit Mitch Marner into the mix. The numbers might melt your brain a bit.

The Golden Knights still need to sort out their own issues with Nikita Gusev lingering as a fascinating RFA, and that resolution hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, or maybe instead, the Golden Knights took advantage of extra wiggle room to bring back veteran (and Vegas-loving) defenseman Deryk Engelland for a cheap deal.

Depth goaltending also buzzed around these moves.

Again, Sparks represents an interesting consideration for Vegas, as Malcolm Subban hasn’t been an unqualified solution as Marc-Andre Fleury‘s backup. Perhaps Sparks would end up prevailing after both of their contracts expire following the 2019-20 season?

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs opened up room for a depth option as well, as they confirmed that Michal Neuvirth has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

It kind of makes you want to dig up that Charlie Kelly mailroom conspiracy board to try to cover all the ins and outs, but the bigger picture takeaway is that the Maple Leafs and Golden Knights continue to work on their cap conundrums, and this trade was really just another step in the process.

At least it was a pretty odd and funny step, though.

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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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 bring back Subban; Will Vegas ease Fleury’s burden?

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With a tight salary cap situation that might just force intriguing forward Nikita Gusev out of town, it’s no surprise that the Vegas Golden Knights are going status quo (and cheap) when it comes to their backup goalie.

The Golden Knights are bringing back 25-year-old goalie Malcolm Subban to back up 34-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury in 2019-20, with Subban receiving a one-year, $850K contract. So you can cross Subban’s name off of the salary arbitration hearing list.

“We are pleased to announce this one-year contract for Malcolm. He’s been a valuable contributor to our team over the last two seasons,” Golden Knights GM George McPhee said. “We are excited to continue to work with Malcolm and help him reach his full potential as an NHL goaltender.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Potential is an interesting word with Subban.

The Boston Bruins made him an increasingly rare first-round pick, taking him 24th in 2012.

So far, Subban hasn’t justified that pick, but it behooves the Golden Knights to give him more opportunities to sink or swim. Because, frankly, they’ve been leaning on Marc-Andre Fleury far too much, and it sure feels like head coach Gerard Gallant has been playing with fire in that regard.

Subban only appeared in seven games from October through Dec. 31, and only 11 by the month of February. It would seem savvy to rest Fleury and play Subban more late in the season to ready for the playoffs (Subban played 10 games from March 10 to April 1), but that happened in large part because Fleury suffered a lower-body injury.

With 798 regular-season games already on his resume, not to mention plenty of deep playoff runs, Fleury’s a high-mileage 34-year-old, and there’s increasing evidence that teams need to shy away from the Brodeurian workloads of old.

Vegas would be wise to protect its investment with Fleury. Some might look at Fleury’s $7 million cap hit (which runs through 2021-22) and think that they should get every penny’s worth by playing “The Flower” as much as possible, but that’s shortsighted. Instead of letting MAF wilt, they should do their best to conserve his energy for when the big games roll in April and on.

Of course, to get to April, they’ll need to win enough games, and that would require Subban to deliver.

After putting forth a reasonably promising 2017-18 (.910 save percentage, 13-4-2 record) with Vegas, Subban sputtered in 2018-19, going 8-10-2 with a mediocre .902 save percentage. Those aren’t the type of numbers that will convince Gallant to be more future-focused and give Fleury the sort of breaks that might pay off down the line.

Really, though, with the Golden Knights’ war chest of talent, they might want to just buckle up and hope they can win high-scoring games. Even if Subban struggles here and there, it’s conceivable that they can just survive a back-and-forth bout with all of that skill, plus a little help from the Vegas flu?

If the Golden Knights ultimately don’t trust Subban to hold down the fort, or at least spell Fleury during back-to-back sets, then they sorely need to find other options. Perhaps that will mean pouncing instead of passing when Curtis McElhinney-type goalies get placed on waivers during the 2019-20 season, but either way, these are discussions Vegas should be having.

Cramped cap or not, the Golden Knights have done a lot right for a team that’s already highly competitive after just two seasons in the NHL, yet finding the right goalie balance could play a role in Vegas enjoying a big run like they did in 2017-18, rather than finishing another year with the sort of gutting feeling they experienced ending last season.

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.