Henri Jokiharju

Buffalo Sabres: 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 long-term outlook for the Buffalo Sabres.

Victor Olofsson ranks as biggest surprise for Sabres

With four points in six games to close out 2018-19, Olofsson showed promise. Little did we know, Olofsson was also providing a sneak preview for 2019-20. Olofsson began with a bang, carrying over that late 2018-19 season to score his first seven career goals on the power play, becoming the first NHL player to do so. (Or, at least as far as we know, being that the NHL began recording the stat in 1933-34.)

The Sabres’ power play and record eventually cooled off, and so did Olofsson. In Olofsson’s case, it was not as much as some might think, though.

Olofsson generated 35 points through 42 games before the All-Star break, settling down toward the end with seven points in 12 games (42 points in 54 overall). Olofsson finished third in Sabres scoring behind Jack Eichel (78) and Sam Reinhart (50) despite missing 15 games due to a lower-body injury.

While Olofsson rode some hot streaks, his 15.7 shooting percentage wasn’t so outrageous as to totally wipe out his impressive season. And you might chalk up some of his cold finish to injury issues, much like you’d downplay some of that hot start due to puck luck.

Split the difference, and the Sabres might have a nice find on their hands. Being that he was a seventh-round pick (181st overall in 2014) Olofsson seems like a gem for Buffalo. It just remains to be seen if Olofsson is a full-fledged diamond in the rough, or something a little less valuable.

Jeff Skinner‘s season a disappointment for Sabres, even with lowered expectations

Skinner’s brief Buffalo period already features a fascinating run of twists and turns.

My personal feeling was that the Hurricanes were selling low when they traded Skinner before 2018-19, being that his shooting percentage was just 8.7 in 2017-18. Skinner created instant chemistry with Jack Eichel in 2018-19, scoring 40 goals on a career-high 14.9 shooting percentage.

The stage was then set for Skinner to cost a bundle. Honestly, it felt like the Sabres kinda had to break the bank to keep Eichel, even if they were buying high with his new contract after buying low in that trade.

And now it … yeah, looks like the Sabres bought high. Skinner managed a mediocre 14 goals and just nine assists for 23 points over 59 games in 2019-20.

Skinner failing to look like a $9M forward wasn’t all that surprising. Still, such a drop in production was agonizing for the Sabres.

That said, there’s hope that Skinner might flip the script again — to an extent.

Skinner suffered through a 7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20, tying a career low. It’s also fair to wonder if the Sabres would have been wiser to play Skinner with Eichel more often. More Eichel and more puck luck could boost Skinner’s numbers back to a higher level.

Will he be worth $9M? Probably not, but focusing on that dollar amount will only make things worse for Skinner and the Sabres.

New cast members, same Sabres story of disappointments

Sometimes the Sabres feel like a sad rerun of a failed sitcom.

Actually, maybe call it a failed reboot, like Hollywood’s recent attempts to make “The Fantastic Four,” a thing. Different cast members haven’t equaled box office buzz or critical acclaim.

Buffalo brought in new head coach Ralph Krueger. They aggressively attempted to boost their defensive depth with Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Henri Jokiharju. Marcus Johansson seemed like a wise budget addition.

With a hot 8-1-1 start, it seemed like there was hope for the Sabres. Maybe they’d be able to build off of that early sprint after falling off the tracks following a early rise in 2018-19, too?

Nope, the wheels came off once again. For yet another season, the Sabres couldn’t provide Jack Eichel with enough help. Sometimes there was bad luck, but other times, they were guilty of self-destructive moves. All the while, fans seemed on the verge of revolt.

***

(The biggest of all Sabres disappointments is probably Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s layoffs amid the coronavirus crisis, though.)

MORE SABRES BITS:
Looking at the Sabres’ 2019-20 season (so far?)
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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.

It looks like Blackhawks are sticking with Bowman, Colliton

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Before the 2019-20 NHL season went on pause the Chicago Blackhawks were headed toward their third consecutive non-playoff season and their fifth consecutive season without a playoff series win (with only three playoff game wins during that stretch).

It has been a pretty sudden fall from the top for an organization that was once the gold standard for winning in the salary cap NHL.

They are not only no longer a Stanley Cup contender, they are not even all that close to being a playoff team in what has been a mostly watered down Western Conference the past two years.

Despite the sudden descent into mediocrity, there does not appear to be any significant changes coming to the coaching staff or front office after this season.

In an interview with the Athletic’s Scott Powers, Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said the trio of team president John McDonough, general manager Stan Bowman, and head coach Jeremy Colliton will all be back next season.

From the Athletic:

Wirtz isn’t on the same page as those fans. Asked about his confidence level in the trio, Wirtz replied, “I think they’re all good.”

Does he envision all three returning next season?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Wirtz said. “There’s not going to be any changes in the front office.”

Wirtz reiterated that when he was asked about a rumored Bowman contract extension.

“I’ll let John (McDonough) get into all the details,” Wirtz said of Bowman’s contract. “But there’s not going to be any changes, so let’s put that away.”

The level of confidence there is a little surprising given the current state of the Blackhawks’ organization, especially as it relates to the key people in the front office responsible with building the team.

It was just a little over a year ago that the team parted ways with a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach (Joel Quenneville) after a slow start to the season 2018-19 season. It wasn’t a stretch to think that move would have started the timer on Bowman given that the attention would eventually drift toward the team’s roster management. Especially after the Blackhawks seemed to go all in this offseason on trying to fix their flaws with the hope of squeezing another run out of this remaining core. Obviously, that gamble has not paid off.

While the Blackhawks have to deal with salary cap restrictions that come from paying a pair of superstars big money at the top, that alone isn’t enough of a justification for the drop in success, especially while teams like Washington and Pittsburgh have maintained consistent success with a similar cap structure. The issue still comes back to roster management and some questionable decisions over the years. The Blackhawks tried to get ahead of their salary cap issues over the years but simply made things worse in the short-and long-term.

They needed to dump Bryan Bickell’s contract and did so by attaching Teuvo Teravainen to it and trading him to Carolina for next to nothing. Today, Teravainen is one of the Hurricanes’ best players and would easily be a top player in Chicago.

They feared how much Artemi Panarin would cost on his next contract and dealt him to Columbus to bring back Brandon Saad and some cost certainty. Talent-for-talent, the trade was laughably one-sided and saw them deal a superstar for a good player. Maybe they couldn’t have re-signed him for his current contract and lost him anyway, but how much more competitive would they have been the previous two years with him at forward with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Alex DeBrincat?

Then there were smaller, minor deals this offseason like trading Dominik Kahun and Henri Jokiharju for Olli Maatta and Alex Nylander, and then getting an underwhelming return on Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson at the trade deadline. There are big mistakes. There are a bunch of small mistakes adding up into big mistakes. It all just keeps building up into what the Blackhawks have now.

That is not to say there have not been some successes.

Acquiring Dominik Kubalik has been one of the Blackhawks’ best steals in recent years. DeBrincat has turned out to be an outstanding second-round pick, while recent top picks Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach look like they can be young building blocks going forward. But even with those successes and the promise they bring there are still more questions than solutions throughout the roster. Without dramatic change somewhere, the mediocrity might only continue to build.

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.

Stan Bowman’s big bet on Blackhawks’ core

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With no postseason series wins in four years, no postseason appearances in two years, and a veteran team with big contracts it would not have been a huge shock if the Chicago Blackhawks decided to tear things down a little this offseason in an effort to start a new chapter for the organization.

Sure, some of the contracts remaining on the team are ugly in terms of the commitment and dollars still owed, and they are loaded with no-trade clauses, but there are always ways around all of that that. No contract is so bad that it can not be moved, clauses can be waived, deals can be bought out.

But instead of tearing down the core or making drastic changes to the foundation of the team, Bowman has instead doubled down on his championship core and worked to try and fix the flaws that existed around it.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

  • He signed Robin Lehner for one year to give the team a safety net in case Corey Crawford is limited by injuries or poor performance.
  • He acquired veteran defenders Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan.
  • He re-acquired Andrew Shaw from the Montreal Canadiens, continuing his longstanding trend of bringing back players he previously traded or lost to free agency.
  • He made the bold and controversial decision to trade one the team’s top prospects — defender Henri Jokiharju — for what is probably a lesser prospect in Alexander Nylander.

By doing all of this, and by going after the type of players he did (mostly established veterans built to win now), he is pretty much telling the hockey world he still believes this Blackhawks team is good enough to compete and win this season. Maybe there is some reason for him to believe that. As long as a team has high-end players in its lineup the window will always remain cracked open and you never want to truly punt on a season as long as you still have that. And the Blackhawks certainly still have some of that element with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and Duncan Keith at the top.

But it is still a big bet that is going to depend largely on what happens with the Crawford-Lehner duo in net, how much they can get out of their top-returning defenders, and if he acquired the right players to improve what has been one of the league’s worst defensive teams.

The issue for Bowman is going to come if he is wrong on these bets.

The Blackhawks have not come close to reaching the standard they set for themselves between 2010 and 2015 and have won just three total playoff games over the past four years (all coming in a Round 1 loss to the St. Louis Blues during the 2015-16 playoffs).

Given that the team has already fired a three-time Stanley Cup winning, future Hall of Fame coach within the past year we have probably reached the point where any continued lack of success is going to start falling on Bowman. He is the one that chose the direction of the team, he is the one that brought in the players that are supposed to help fix the problems, and it’s not like his recent track record of deals and moves is beyond reproach.

Everything about the Blackhawks’ offseason points to a team that thinks it can win this season.

If it doesn’t, it could be costly for the general manager.

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.

Depth, defense, Nylander will be Blackhawks’ biggest questions

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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 Chicago Blackhawks.

It is time to ponder three significant questions for the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks.

1. Did they do enough to fix their defense?

The Blackhawks have steadily devolved into one of the worst defensive teams in hockey over the past couple of years and seemingly hit rock bottom during the 2018-19 season, wasting what turned out to be a pretty good offensive team.

The front office spent most of the summer working to fix that problem by acquiring Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players should be at least marginal upgrades when they are in the lineup (de Haan may not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery) but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on this unit.

Among them: How much do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left in the tank? Keith is one of the best defenders of his era and has a Hall of Fame resume, but he is also entering his age 36 season and has showed signs of slowing down the past couple of years. Seabrook has a terrible contract and is a shell of his former self, rapidly becoming an anchor on the team’s blue line.

Then there is Erik Gustafsson who is coming off of a monster year offensively (17 goals, 60 total points) but has to show it wasn’t a fluke.

The new additions might be fine for the 4-5 spots, but if the top-three aren’t able to play at a high level the new guys really won’t that matter much.

The curious move this offseason was the decision to trade Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander. Jokiharju showed a lot of promise last year and figured to be a key part of the team’s future blue line. But he never seemed to gain the trust of new head coach Jeremy Colliton, was banished to the AHL, and then traded for a player that so far has been a massive disappointment. Trading him is a big risk that could backfire in a big way if they are wrong.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Do they have enough depth at forward?

What gives the Blackhawks a chance this season is the fact they still have impact players throughout their roster. Patrick Kane is still on of the league’s best offensive players, Jonathan Toews resurrected his career offensively a year ago, Alex DeBrincat looks like he has the chance to be a superstar, and Dylan Strome started to show some of the potential that made him a top-three pick in the draft. Their top two lines should be good enough to compete.

The issue is going to come on their third and fourth lines that seem to be produce more questions than answers.

Teams need to roll four lines that can score in today’s NHL, and even with the return of Andrew Shaw the Blackhawks’ bottom-six still leaves plenty to be desired.

One player that could go a long way toward helping that depth is the recently acquiring Alexander Nylander.

Speaking of him…

3. Will they be right about Alexander Nylander?

In a vacuum the decision to trade Jokiharju isn’t completely ridiculous. Teams deal top prospects all the time in an effort to get better, and given the numbers the Blackhawks have on defense it makes sense that someone at the position would get moved.

Trading him for Nylander, a player that is starting to border on being a bust, is what is so confusing.

If you are an optimist, you might point to the Blackhawks’ success with Dylan Strome after he blossomed following a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with that comparison is that Strome had at least shown the potential to be an impact offensive player. Prior to the trade to Chicago he was a point-per-game player in the AHL and was starting to produce a little bit in his limited NHL action, especially at the end of the 2017-18 season

Nylander to this point has done none of that.

Over three years in the AHL he managed just 30 goals in 165 games and was only a .522 point-per-game player.

Strome, on the other hand, scored 22 in only 50 games in his one full AHL season and doubled Nylander’s per-game point production.

If you are supposed to be an offensive player and you don’t score at the lower level, it’s hard to expect much production at the highest level.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Breakout candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 potential breakout candidates for the 2019-20 NHL season.

We are looking for young players who have already made their NHL debut (so no Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko) and could be on the verge of taking a big step toward stardom.

Who makes the cut? Let’s find out. To the rankings!

1. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. He is one of just eight players since the start of the 2000-01 season to score at least 20 goals as an 18-year-old in the NHL. The previous seven (Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jordan Staal, Nathan MacKinnon, Steven Stamkos, Jeff Skinner, and Patrik Laine) scored an average of 31 goals in year two. With his talent and rocket shot don’t be surprised if Svechnikov tops the 30-goal mark and becomes a top-line player for the Hurricanes.

2. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are loaded with young talent and with the offseason trade of Tyson Barrie are going to be relying on a lot of youth on defense. Makar made his NHL debut in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and never really looked out of place, showing the type of skill and potential that could make him a Calder Trophy favorite entering the 2019-20 season.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers. Flyers fans have reason to believe their long-time goaltending headache could finally be going away. Hart finished with a .917 save percentage as a 20-year-old and is going to enter the season as the team’s starter. He could be a franchise-changing player.

4. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. Not every No. 1 pick is going to enter the NHL and immediately become a superstar. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. Hischier has been really good his first two years in the league and probably still has another level he can reach, and with the Devils adding some impact talent to their roster this offseason he should have a little more help in getting there.

5. Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks. There is an argument to be made that Labanc already had his “breakout” season this past year (17 goals, 56 assists) but it might still yet be ahead of him. He not only should get a bigger role this season for the Sharks but he also kind of bet on himself to have a big year with a one-year, $1 million contract. He has talent, he is already productive, and he has a lot to play for.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

6. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning. Ton of talent, potential and already productive at a young age. He just turned 21 and has already played 150 games and has averaged 0.36 points per game. Only six other active defenders have had a similar start to their careers: Drew Doughty, Zach Werenski, Morgan Rielly, Aaron Ekblad, Tyler Myers and Cam Fowler. Hopefully for the Lightning’s sake he follows the path of the first four.

7. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens. There was a lot to like about Kotkaniemi’s rookie season. Not only did he produce at a respectable level for a teenager, but he also posted dominant possession numbers (57 percent Corsi) that were among the league’s best. Was it a sheltered role? Sure it was, he was an 18-year-old rookie. But there is still something to be said for a player that age stepping right into the NHL and holding his own the way he did.

8. Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues. A first-round pick by the Blues in 2017, Thomas has been a highly anticipated prospect in the Blues organization and, in making the jump from the OHL straight to the NHL, made a strong first impression for the Stanley Cup champions. Great talent and likely to be a core building block for the Blues in the coming seasons.

9. Henri Jokiharju, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have added a lot of talent to their blue line over the past two years, drafting Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 overall in 2018 and then acquiring Colin Miller and Jokiharju. Jokiharju is definitely the more intriguing out of the latter two because he is still only 20 years old, was a first-round pick just a couple of years ago, and looked really good at times in the first half of the 2018-19 season for the Chicago Blackhawks. He never seemed to get the trust of new coach Jeremy Colliton and was eventually traded this summer for Alex Nylander. If he reaches his potential in Buffalo the Sabres might finally have the start of a playoff caliber defense.

10. Devon Toews, New York Islanders. Toews is an interesting one because he is the oldest player on this list (25) and only has 56 games of NHL experience (regular season and playoffs combined) on his resume. It took him a few years to get his first look with the Islanders, but he absolutely made the most of it and looked more impressive with each game.

Honorable mentionsRyan Donato, Minnesota Wild; Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes; Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars; Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers; Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche; David Rittich, Calgary Flames; Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers; Filip Zadina, Detroit Red Wings.

MORE: Top regression candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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.