Mark Stone

Rest vs. rust for top four West teams in Round Robin

[UPDATE – JULY 10: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

It’s time to break down how the top four teams in the West should approach the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding. Earlier on Wednesday, PHT examined similar “rest vs. rust” debates for the East’s top four teams in this format.

Debates for West top four teams heading into NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding

St. Louis Blues

Compared to some of the East’s aging teams, the Blues are reasonably spry. Yes, Alex Pietrangelo is 30, and David Perron is 32. There are some veterans to watch, but the larger picture is a team heavy on mid-prime players.

That said, the Blues should monitor a few situations.

Most obviously, they need to keep an eye on Vladimir Tarasenko. All signs point to Tarasenko being good to go, but it’s unclear if he’ll need to be managed after shoulder surgery.

If the Blues are being proactive, they also might want to keep an open mind with their goalies. Sure, it seems like the top job is Jordan Binnington‘s to lose. But it should be noted that Jake Allen enjoyed a shockingly redemptive season, besting Binnington in save percentage (.927 to Binnington’s .912) and more advanced stats (Allen GSAA: 11.23; Binnington: 3.31).

As defending champions, the Blues enjoy a certain “honeymoon phase,” especially since they broke the franchise’s Stanley Cup curse. Combine that with the wear-and-tear on players like Pietrangelo and 29-year-old Ryan O'Reilly, and there should be a push to rest the top-ranked West team in the Round Robin for Seeding.

Colorado Avalanche

On one hand, the Avalanche rank as one of the youngest contenders in recent memory. Scarily so, if you’re a team preparing to jostle with them in the West over the next few years.

That said, the Avs suffered from a notable number of injuries, including late in the eventually paused season.

Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Philipp Grubauer, and Andre Burakovsky suffered injuries of varying severity in February. Nathan MacKinnon got a little dinged up in March.

Colorado persevered through some pretty significant injuries late in 2018-19, as well, so the Avalanche must be thrilled by the possibility of entering the West Round Robin for Seeding healthier than usual.

Ideally, at least. Managing this might come down to a mix of luck (those players healing up on time) and caution (not getting too greedy in this three-game format).

Vegas Golden Knights

Normally, the concern would revolve around insulating 35-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Instead, the Golden Knights should think long and hard about nudging the starting job toward Robin Lehner. NHL teams rarely are so bold, though, so we’ll assume “MAF” is the guy. Maybe Lehner allows Vegas to be more fast-and-loose with “The Flower.”

If you want another way to summarize the strangeness of this season, consider that the Golden Knights could grab the top seed in the West despite firing their coach. On that note, is Peter DeBoer truly comfortable with the team he has in front of him? It will be necessary to supplement the West Round Robin for Seeding with makeshift training camp, but sometimes you get the most “intel” with something on the line.

And, despite only being in their third season, the Golden Knights face stakes.

After shocking the hockey world, the Golden Knights have stocked up with the likes of Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. With that in mind, the Golden Knights are closer to the Blues than the Avalanche when you’re considering the age of go-to players.

Many of those players probably benefited from this break. Pacioretty and Stone ranked among those nursing injuries. It’s not certain, yet this seems like a situation where Vegas might get Alex Tuch back, too.

Vegas basically falls in the middle of the pack as far as the “rest vs. rust” debates go in the Round Robin for Seeding, in the West and overall.

Dallas Stars

Aside from a youthful defense, the Stars stand out as one of the teams that should really be careful with veteran players.

Size is one of the factors that helps Ben Bishop (33) dominate, yet that also likely heightens his injury risk. On the bright side, Anton Khudobin (34) stands right there with him as two goalies who deliver. They’re also both on the old side, though.

The forward group is up there as well. As much has been made about Tyler Seguin (28) and especially Jamie Benn (30) losing a step or two, it’s the supporting cast that’s dancing with Father Time. Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry are both 35, while Alexander Radulov and Andrew Cogliano are both 33.

(At least there’s 23-year-old Roope Hintz and a few others to add some youth to that mix.)

It’s important for Rick Bowness to read the room here.

While there’s an argument that this interrupted format might benefit high-scoring teams, it’s also possible that a stingy group could make a run. Maybe that lack of crowd noise will suffocate offenses that much more?

The Stars aren’t favorites, so it wouldn’t be bleeping horsebleep if this didn’t work out. It would be if the Stars fall short because of self-inflicted wounds, though.

MORE ON NHL PLAYOFFS, ROUND ROBIN FOR SEEDING:

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.

Long-term outlook for Vegas Golden Knights

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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 Vegas Golden Knights.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

If you showed a non-hockey fan the salary structures of all 31 NHL teams, they’d probably not choose the Golden Knights as the team that’s only in the middle of its third season.

Rather than looking like they just entered the NHL, the Golden Knights are remarkably “established.” Consider their significant long-term commitments, which include luring players to Vegas:

That’s a lot of money, quite a bit of term, and many of those contracts include no-movement and/or no-trade clauses. Our Golden Knights are all grown up, already, folks.

On the bright side, a lot of those contracts are quite team-friendly. Theodore at $5.2M and Karlsson at $5.9M both stand out among the best deals (at least after Marchessault took a step back, and Tuch’s dealt with injury issues).

Few teams boast a strong mix of two top lines and some nice, prime-age defensemen at reasonable prices for considerable terms, let alone one that wouldn’t be old enough to go to Kindergarten. Yet, here we are with the Golden Knights.

[PHT Power Rankings: Where do Golden Knights rank among best and worst long-term outlooks?]

Long-term needs for Golden Knights

For some time, the Golden Knights experienced a serious need for a backup behind Marc-Andre Fleury. Considering that he’s 35, they had to know that MAF-or-bust wasn’t going to work forever. It sunk in 2019-20, to the point that they brought in Robin Lehner.

With Lehner being splendid during the past two years, and being much younger (in hockey terms) at 28, I can’t help but wonder if Vegas might try to be bold and keep Lehner around.

Doing so would require some juggling, possibly including trying to convince MAF to accept a trade … but it’s something the Golden Knights should at least consider.

Beyond figuring out goaltending depth one way or another — this free agent crop does look good, even beyond Lehner — Vegas faces the challenges most competitive teams do during this salary cap era. While I’d argue that Vegas is deeper than most, the Golden Knights could still use more help up and down the lineup.

Long-term strengths for Golden Knights

Under the assumptions you’d make about an expansion team, you’d expect the Golden Knights to possess a strong prospect pool. That they do, with the Golden Knights placing 10th on Scott Wheeler’s rankings at The Athletic (sub required), as one recent example.

When you pour over the details, the Golden Knights compiling a strong pool gets more impressive.

After all, the Golden Knights haven’t ever drafted higher than sixth (Cody Glass in 2017). They didn’t make a first-round selection in 2018, and only picked 17th (Peyton Krebs) in the 2019 NHL Draft.

In enjoying unexpected contention, Vegas also paid up for rentals and significant additions, bleeding picks and prospects like Erik Brannstrom and Nick Suzuki.

Despite losing key assets, the Golden Knights still managed to bulk up on prospects, giving them a strong chance of supplementing their current stars as they get older. Ideally, a Glass or Krebs may pick up the slack when players like Pacioretty run out of steam.

Beyond Pacioretty and Fleury, a lot of key Golden Knights are either in or around their primes. That Stone price tag might eventually be rough, but right now he’s a two-way superstar, and the Golden Knights can win plenty of best-on-best battles.

When you ponder the big picture, few teams enjoy a better long-term outlook than the Golden Knights.

MORE ON THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS:

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.

Season full of surprises, disappointments for Vegas Golden Knights

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Gallant Fleury
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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 Vegas Golden Knights.

Coaching disappointments and surprises for Golden Knights

All these months later, it’s still hard to believe. The Golden Knights fired fairly recent Jack Adams Award winner and generally well-regarded coach Gerard Gallant. If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, they replaced Gallant with Peter DeBoer, former Sharks coach and person Gallant called a “clown.”

Stunning.

As Adam Gretz noted back in January, Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon didn’t exactly share a lot of details for why Gallant was fired.

“It wasn’t a specific block of games, or a specific game,” McCrimmon said. “It’s hard to put into words I guess unless you’ve done these jobs, it’s more just the feeling that you have that a change might be needed. I wish I could be more specific than that, but that’s really how we felt …”

You can’t blame observers for finding disappointments in the process the Golden Knights went through, then.

The real source of disappointments for the Golden Knights

Under Gallant, the Golden Knights were a dominant puck possession team. They did a lot right, even if the results weren’t always there. Regardless of how McCrimmon and others “feel,” sometimes you just don’t get the bounces in hockey.

It’s especially tough for a coach to manufacture wins when your goaltending fails. Both on special teams and at even strength, Vegas’ netminding wasn’t up to snuff.

Marc-Andre Fleury‘s done a lot for this franchise, particularly during their unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. His play has dropped considerably from season to season, and 2019-20 represents a troubling picture. MAF only managed a .905 save percentage, forcing Vegas to prop him up to a 27-16-5 record.

To be fair to Fleury, he stood as easily the best option for Vegas for most of three seasons. Simply put, Malcolm Subban and other backups rarely got it done.

Really, to some extent, the disappointments revolve around the Golden Knights failing to find a goalie Plan B behind Fleury. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that they traded for Robin Lehner.

Thanks to the pandemic pause, we really only received glimpses of what the Golden Knights could look like with Lehner in net. Frankly, there’s a strong chance that Lehner is the Plan A to Fleury’s Plan B, rather than the other way around. Lehner even showed as much in just three appearances, winning them all with a sparkling .940 save percentage.

Patched up

After his first season with the Golden Knights, it sure seemed like Max Pacioretty‘s best days were behind him.

Pacioretty finished his run with the Habs with a whimper, managing only 17 goals and 37 points. Unfortunately, his Golden Knights debut seemed like a mirror image, producing merely 40 points in 2018-19.

While I would chalk up a significant portion of Pacioretty’s resurgence to playing with Mark Stone, it’s still delightful to see “Patches” rise. Especially considering how frequently he was unfairly scapegoated in Montreal.

Despite being limited to 71 games played, Pacioretty scored 32 goals and 66 points in 2019-20. He didn’t need outrageous puck luck, either, as his 10.4 shooting percentage was a bit below his 11 career average.

(Granted, he did enjoy a career-high 12.1 percent on-ice shooting percentage, but … still.)

Consider the dramatic difference between Pacioretty’s fabulous RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey for 2019-20:

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Pacioretty 2019-20

And contrast that to his troubling RAPM chart from 2018-19:

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Pacioretty 2018-19

Again, playing with Stone made life significantly easier for Pacioretty. But beyond showing what a difference a two-way star can make, it also shows that a strong player can rebound if given some time. Pacioretty served as one of the most pleasant surprises for the Golden Knights in a season where they had to navigate plenty of disappointments.

Considering the many disappointments and stunning surprises, it’s quite something that Vegas sits atop the Pacific Division during the pause.

MORE ON THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS:

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.

A best on best mythical tournament: Players in their prime

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) pushes the puck forward on a break-away as Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next few Thursdays. The first team created was a 23-and-under roster that would be fascinating to watch.

An NHL player usually reaches peak performance in his late 20’s and this roster is comprised of players in the prime of their career between the ages of 24 and 29. The combination of skill, size, wisdom and depth in this group will be difficult to match for any opponent. The most surprising part of building this team was seeing several superstars left on the sidelines.

Line Combinations

First line: Artemi PanarinNathan MacKinnonLeon Draisaitl

Thoughts: All three players are firmly in the conversation for the 2019-2020 Hart Trophy and the thought of them on the same team, let alone the same line would be highly entertaining. Panarin has established himself as one of the best passers in the NHL and having two lethal goal scorers alongside him should make for an explosive trio.

Second line: Johnny GaudreauMark ScheifeleNikita Kucherov

Thoughts: Both wingers don’t offer much size but Gaudreau and Kucherov are both electric players that have learned how to win in the corners despite their diminutive stature. Scheifele has long been one of the more underrated players in the league and should find instant chemistry with two players that possess elite on-ice vision.

Third line: Taylor HallMika ZibanejadMark Stone

Thoughts: Hall’s game has dipped since winning the 2018 Hart Trophy but still remains a top two-way forward. Zibanejad was one of the most controversial picks beating out the likes of John Tavares, Tyler Seguin and others. But No. 93 has improved his game since the New York Rangers acquired him in a one-sided traded.

Fourth line: Chris Kreider – Ryan O’Reilly – Jonathan Huberdeau

Thoughts: Kreider and O’Reilly have anchored shut down lines in the past but the addition of Huberdeau should add more offensive punch to a very responsible grouping. All three skaters play a disciplined, 200-foot game and could match up with any combination of forwards an opponent has to offer.

First D pairing: Roman JosiSeth Jones
Second D pairing: Victor HedmanDougie Hamilton
Third D pairing: Oliver Ekman-LarssonAaron Ekblad

Thoughts: It’s hard to find a flaw in this grouping of defensemen. These six players collectively possess all the attributes needed to shut down opponents and can quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone.

Starting Goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Backup Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

Just Missed: Aleksander Barkov, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares

Captain: Roman Josi

Alternate captains: Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl

Analysis

It was surprising to see only one player on this team with a championship ring and just seven players have participated in a Stanley Cup Final. With that said, this team has experience in best on best tournaments at every level and have routinely been through the grind of an NHL regular season.

On paper, there are limited areas of concern. The team is comprised of players with diverse attributes to form an extremely well-balanced roster. It has several explosive goal-scorers in the top-six and responsible players in the bottom-six that have the ability to consistently produce on the offensive side of the ice.

In addition, the blueline is staggered with lockdown defensemen and two Vezina candidates guarding the crease.

One challenge for this team, and for any roster in a tournament of this nature, is the ability to find instant chemistry with line mates. In theory, Panarin can set up a few of the top scorers but does it work in reality?

Due to the balance of the roster and varied characteristics, I believe this team would have the inside track to winning this mythical tournament.

Surprising omissions

John Tavares: It wasn’t too long ago that Tavares was the most sought-after free agent in the summer of 2018, but it was challenging to find a spot for the Maple Leafs captain on this roster. It was a tight race between No. 91 and Mika Zibanejad for the third line center position, but the Swedish right-handed centerman has become one of the more dynamic players in the NHL. Tavares is a world-class player. He could easily slide back onto the roster and change the narrative with a dominant stretch when professional hockey returns.

Erik Karlsson: This Swedish defenseman used to terrorize the league with his smooth skating and incredible vision. However, Karlsson hasn’t looked like himself since being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September of 2018. He routinely crossed the 60-point plateau and set a career-high with 82 points in 2015-16, but injuries have slowed him down the past two seasons. This mythical tournament will require teams to perform at an incredibly high level and there is no room for someone who has not been at the top of his game.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Golden Knights looking like a major Stanley Cup threat

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Let’s talk about the Vegas Golden Knights for a bit, because they are starting to emerge as one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference.

They enter Monday’s game in Edmonton in first-place in the Pacific Division and are one of the league’s hottest teams having won 10 of their past 12 games, while also owning a 14-5-2 record since the hiring of new coach Peter DeBoer.

It’s not just the recent results that make them such a threat right now in the West. It’s the fact they are starting to systematically dominate teams. It is the perfect storm of the right results and the right process.

So what’s happening in Vegas that is making them such a threat?

They have tightened things up defensively

Just to make it clear at the start: I was very critical of their decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant earlier this season and replace him with Peter DeBoer. Not because DeBoer isn’t a good coach (He is, as is Gallant), but because the problems in Vegas at the time seemed to be more of a goaltending issue than anything relating to coaching.

But fair is fair to DeBoer, and the Golden Knights have definitely improved their overall performance defensively.

The table below shows some of their 5-on-5 defensive metrics under the two coaches, including shot attempts against, shot attempt differential, expected goals against, goals against, and save percentage.

The goaltending still hasn’t been where they want it to be, and while they were still a top-10 team in some key defensive metrics under Gallant, they have been quite literally the league’s best under DeBoer.

The big change is in dramatic decrease in total shot attempts against, as well as the way they have cut down on the scoring chances and expected goals against. Even though the goaltending performance has remained similar, the defensive play in front of them has definitely improved.

The type of performance we are seeing from the right now is one that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams.

Robin Lehner gives them an intriguing option

Speaking of the goaltending situation, it’s going to be interesting to see how this situation unfolds down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise from the moment he was acquired in the expansion draft, and overall he’s been a rock for them in net. But the fact of the matter is that his overall performance has regressed this season, and outside of a handful of random games in February it hasn’t really consistently improved.

But with Robin Lehner now in the mix the Golden Knights have a very intriguing Plan B in place.

One of their biggest weaknesses the past two years has been the lack of a quality backup behind Fleury. It forced Fleury to take on a huge workload (not great for a goalie in his mid-30s) and had no safety net in case of an injury or poor play.

They not only have a great Plan B, their Plan B also happens to be one of the league’s best goalies the past two years, and he is 3-0 with a .940 save percentage since joining the Golden Knights at the trade deadline.

Forget the star power and reputations, there is no reason why that job should not be up for debate and an open competition down the stretch. If one of them emerges and solidifies that spot, it would take this team to an entirely different level.

Max Pacioretty has been amazing, and Mark Stone will be back

The Golden Knights may not have a true superstar in their lineup, but their top-end talent is legit. Leading the way is Pacioretty (he got a mention in this week’s MVP Power Rankings) who is having one of the best seasons of his career, driving play like a champion and scoring at close to a 40-goal pace.

As a team, they have six forwards scoring at a 20-goal pace over 82 games, while they have also played the past six games (4-2-0 record) without perhaps their best overall forward, Mark Stone.

They should have a very manageable playoff path

This might be one of the biggest things working in their favor.

There are a ton of factors that go into winning in the playoffs, from playing well, to health, to goaltending, to luck, to simply getting the right matchups.

Obviously nothing is a guarantee, but whether the Golden Knights finish first or second in the Pacific Division they should have an extremely manageable path through at least the first two rounds. They would almost certainly be favorites against any team they play in Rounds 1 and 2, while there remains a pretty significant gap between the top contenders in the Western Conference and the next tier of contenders.

Look at it this way: As of publication on Monday afternoon, only one of their potential playoff matchups in Rounds 1 or 2 (Edmonton) of the playoffs ranks higher than 15th in the league in points percentage, while several of their potential early matchups (Calgary, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Arizona, Nashville) are all in the 18-23 range.

It is entirely possible that they would not have to play a top-15 NHL team in the playoffs until a potential Western Conference Final matchup.

They still have to play the games and they still have actually win once they get there, but the way things are shaping up right now with their overall play and potential postseason path the Golden Knights should be one of the top teams to watch for coming out of the Western Conference.

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.