Jeff Skinner

Fumbling Flames must not panic — certainly not with Gaudreau

1 Comment

Things are pretty miserable for the Calgary Flames right now.

After suffering their fifth consecutive loss, Calgary saw its current spot solidified: out of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, if they began today. They’re “below .500” at 10-11-3, and whenever they need to add insults to their injuries, they merely need to glance at the latest snarky update about James Neal vs. Milan Lucic.

Johnny Gaudreau (and to an extent, Sean Monahan) haven’t been immune to tough times, either. Their lackluster play relative to their usual work is a cause for concern.

One might look at, say, Gaudreau’s RAPM chart from 2018-19 (via Evolving Hockey):

Then compare it to the slow start so far in 2019-20:

And start to wonder if there are deeper concerns than merely a star player experiencing a slump that also is extending to a big chunk of the team around him, one that came into 2019-20 with pretty high expectations.

That’s when things start to get a little bumpy. On Monday, The Athletic’s Darren Haynes goes as far as wonder: if it’s time for the Flames to trade Gaudreau (sub required)?

Amusingly, in arguing that the Flames waited too long to trade Jarome Iginla, Haynes uses basically the exact same phrasing I would deploy to talk Calgary off the ledge if there was any notion of trading the superstar winger.

Iginla’s situation remains a textbook example of the perils of listening to the heart, not the head, when it comes to the handling of star players on a team getting worse, not better, or underperforming and in need of a shake-up.

For those who actually need it, here’s why the Flames would be using anything but their heads in the hypothetical knee-jerk reaction of trading away Johnny Gaudreau.

1. Obvious buy-low situation for other teams

Any team pondering a rash decision with a player should do one almost-agonizingly obvious thing: look at their shooting percentage, and general luck.

Ding, ding: Gaudreau’s shooting percentage is just 7.8 so far in 2019-20, well below his career average of 12.5, and a far cry from last season’s 14.7. On-ice shooting percentage is a decent (but not perfect) quick-reference way to see if a playmaker’s passes aren’t resulting in as many goals as usual, and Gaudreau is cold there, too, with a nine-percent mark versus his career average of 10.6 percent.

Basically every sign (including PDO) makes this point: if this sustained for all of 2019-20, it would be easily the unluckiest in Gaudreau’s career. As we’ve learned from players ranging from Taylor Hall to Jeff Skinner, the best way to become a notoriously ridiculed GM is to trade someone when their value is at an all-time low.

2. The Flames’ overall luck has been bad, too.

In 2018-19, quite a few Flames enjoyed the best years of their careers, with Mark Giordano finally winning a Norris Trophy and Elias Lindholm loving life with Gaudreau and Monahan. The problem with career years is that, sometimes, you won’t be able to repeat them.

The truth about Calgary is likely somewhere between the red-hot run of the 2018-19 regular season and the ice-cold 2019-20 start.

The instinct might be to make a bold move to shake things up, but that’s exactly the type of situation that could lead to other teams taking advantage of your desperation.

3. Gaudreau is a steal

Thanks to bargains on other second-contract stars like Nathan MacKinnon (somehow $6.3M AAV through 2022-23), Johnny Gaudreau’s contract isn’t the biggest steal in the NHL. That said, Gaudreau carrying a $6.75M AAV through 2021-22 is still “maybe you should have a little talk with your agent” material.

At 26, Gaudreau remains deep in his prime, and at an attractively cost-controlled price. Giving up on that value because of a brief swoon is the sort of mistake that makes you an eternal — and, honestly, justified — punchline on social media.

4. Gaudreau is really popular

Flames GM Brad Treliving has been described as a “riverboat gambler,” but trading Gaudreau would probably be close to losing his deed in a bad bet than even losing his shirt.

Trading away Gaudreau wouldn’t just run the risk of being a bad hockey move and a bad bit of cap management. It would also be a dangerous PR gamble for a team that’s already dealing with some frustrated fans.

***

Look, the truth is that the Flames might not be quite as potent as they thought they were. That’s a bummer, and it’s understandable that they might grasp for answers, but panicking would likely only make things worse — especially if that meant parting ways with Gaudreau.

Frankly, it would be a troubling sign if they’d even consider it.

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.

The Buzzer: Pietrangelo helps Blues top Maple Leafs; Texier the OT hero

Getty Images
2 Comments

Three Stars

1. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

The Blues captain picked a great time to record his 400th career point. With 12:09 left in the third period and the game tied at two, Pietrangelo wired a shot by Frederik Andersen to give the Blues the lead for good over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The goal was the 23rd game-winning tally of his career, putting him past Al MacInnis for the franchise record among defensemen. The win capped off a pretty good sports Monday for the city St. Louis.

2. Alexandre Texier, Columbus Blue Jackets

Monday’s win over the Buffalo Sabres was a wild one. The Blue Jackets went up 2-0 in the first, then proceeded to blow that lead in the second period. In the third, the teams exchanged power play goals, which included Victor Olofsson‘s third of the season with 1:14 to play. Overtime was all Columbus, with the young forward netting the winner after 128 seconds.

3. Nick Foligno, Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets captain scored his first of the season and later assisted on Texier’s overtime winner. He was also 67% in the face-off circle

Highlights of the Night

• It may been a losing effort, but this was a pretty sequence by the Maple Leafs that ended in a William Nylander goal, their second in 24 seconds:

• Neat assist here from Jason Spezza:

Jeff Skinner had this robbery of Ryan Murray:

Factoids

Scores
Blues 3, Maple Leafs 2
Blue Jackets 4, Sabres 3 (OT)

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

————

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

11 Comments

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Top regression candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

Getty
1 Comment

A week ago we used our PHT Power Rankings to look at 10 players that could be on the verge of a breakout during the 2019-20 NHL season.

This week we go to the opposite end of the spectrum and look at 10 players that could be due for a regression back to reality.

Regression candidates tend to be pretty easy to spot and usually come from players coming off of outlier seasons or were riding extremely high shooting percentages or save percentages that are simply not sustainable from one season to the next. Can they still be good? Absolutely. Will they be as good? Probably not.

Who are the biggest regression candidates this season?

To the rankings!

1. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders. Prior to 2018-19, Cizikas had played parts of seven seasons and never scored more than nine goals, averaging just eight per 82 games played. That is what made his 20-goal output such a surprise. It was a great year, but it was mostly driven by an 18 percent shooting percentage that was nearly 10 points higher than his career average. That sort of spike is not sustainable for any player, let alone one that has a 400-plus game sampling as a fourth-liner with limited offensive ability.

2. Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars. Pavelski has been one of the most underrated goal-scorers of his era and is coming off a monster 38-goal season for the Sharks. Even if he regresses from that number he should still be a great addition for a top-heavy Stars team that needs secondary scoring. They just shouldn’t be counting on him to push the 40-goal mark again. He had a career-high shooting percentage (20.2 percent!) at age 34, making him a textbook candidate for regression. Consider that only one other player since 2000 has shot higher than 20 percent at age 34 or older (Mario Lemieux during the 2000-01 season). A more reasonable expectation for Pavelski: 20-25 goals.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks. With all due respect to Barry Trotz and the coaching job he did, no one person meant more to the 2018-19 New York Islanders than Lehner. His .930 save percentage masked a lot of flaws and was the driving force behind the team’s improbable defensive turnaround. That is an almost impossible performance to maintain year-to-year, and he is now going to a team in Chicago that still has some big question marks defensively and has been one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL the past two years.

4. Alex Chiasson, Edmonton Oilers. Chiasson was one of the few things Peter Chiarelli touched in Edmonton that didn’t immediately turn into a dumpster fire. He scored 22 goals for the Oilers, nearly doubling his previous career high, and was one of the small handful of players that actually exceeded expectations. Getting a lot of time next to Connor McDavid helped, as did an 18 percent shooting percentage.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

5. Cody Eakin, Vegas Golden Knights. In the three full seasons prior to 2018-19 Eakin scored just 30 total goals. He followed that up by scoring 22 last season alone. He is a negative possession player (and looks even worse relative to his team), doesn’t generate a lot of shots on goal, and is coming off of a career-high shooting percentage. Bet on him being closer to 10 goals this season than 20.

6. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres. The 2018-19 season could not have worked out better for Skinner on an individual level. He had a career year in a contract year and cashed in with a mega-deal with the Buffalo Sabres. He scored 37 goals two years ago and seems to have great chemistry with one of the league’s best centers (Jack Eichel) so he should be capable of another huge year, but another 40-goal season seems like it’s asking a lot.

7. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. He filled in admirably for an injured Antti Raanta and was one of the biggest reasons the Coyotes were able to hang around in the playoff race until the final week of the regular season. That performance, however, was a pretty big outlier in his career, and if Raanta is able to stay healthy he will be in a competition for playing time. Expectations for Kuemper in 2019-20: Lower them … at least a little.

8. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. A fresh start in Calgary turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Lindholm as it produced a career-year that saw him shatter all of his career highs. There is reason to believe a lot of the improvement is real (great possession numbers, a shooting percentage that wasn’t a huge outlier, playing alongside talented players) but another 50-assist, 78-point season seems like a high bar for him to match.

9. Andrew Shaw, Chicago Blackhawks. On a per-game basis the 2018-19 season was by far the best one of Shaw’s career, so it was probably a good idea for the Canadiens to sell high on that and move him. Given the Blackhawks’ lack of forward depth he is probably going to be given a significant role, but I don’t know how willing I am to bet on him scoring at 60-point pace over 82 games again.

10. Ryan Strome, New York Rangers. After a nightmare experience with the Oilers, Strome went to the Rangers and erupted offensively with 18 goals in the final 63 games of the regular season. He did this despite averaging just 1.27 shots on goal per game and getting caved in from a possession standpoint. Sometimes players go on hot streaks that eventually fizzle out. His debut with the Rangers was most likely a short-lived hot streak that will eventually fizzle out.

Also worth mentioning: Jaroslav Halak (Boston Bruins), Jared McCann (Pittsburgh Penguins), Ryan Dzingel (Carolina Hurricanes), Ben Bishop (Dallas Stars)

Related: Top breakout 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.

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

Getty Images
4 Comments

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]

Loading up on the right

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.

***

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.