Matthew Tkachuk

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Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois on verge of huge season

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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 Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Columbus Blue Jackets raised some eyebrows at the top of the 2016 draft when they used the No. 3 overall pick to select Pierre-Luc Dubois, passing on winger Jesse Puljujarvi. It was a bit of a surprise because Puljujarvi was viewed as the consensus pick at that spot and was one of the big three in that class alongside Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine (even if the other two were a notch ahead of him).

So far, it is looking as if the Blue Jackets were correct in their assessment to select Dubois.

While Puljujarvi has been mishandled by the Edmonton Oilers and not yet established himself as an NHL regular, Dubois has quickly started to emerge as one of the top players on the Blue Jackets and a significant part of the team’s long-term core.

In his first two years in the NHL he has played in every single game while showing consistent improvement across the board offensively, already producing at a top-line level.

Based on what he has already produced there is reason to believe he could be on the verge of a monster season in 2019-20 for the Blue Jackets. How high is the ceiling for him this season? Let’s try to take a look.

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The table below looks at recent players with a similar start to their NHL careers and what they produced in year three. The criteria: Forwards since the start of the 2007-08 season that played their first two years in the NHL at ages 19 and 20, while also averaging at least 0.25 goals per game, 0.65 points per game, and a 51 percent Corsi percentage — all marks that Dubois has hit so far in his career.

It is a promising list of comparable players if you are Dubois and the Blue Jackets.

A couple things to consider here.

First is that the previous players in this group scored, on average, at a 31-goal, 81-point pace over 82 games, while only one player (Nylander) failed to scored at least 26 goals. Those are huge numbers.

If you wanted to look for a reason to lower you expectations for Dubois it might be that his per-game averages over the first two years are at the low-end of this group. While that is true, his year two performance was right in line with everyone else (0.33 goals per game, 0.74 points per game). The player whose path he most closely resembles is probably Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk whose career and development skyrocketed this past season for the Flames.

Obviously there are no guarantees in professional sports, so Dubois still has to actually do it. But recent history suggests that players that have performed at the level he has demonstrated at this stage of his developmemt go on to become All-Star level players. If you are good enough to perform like that in your first two seasons, it is usually a strong sign that you are going to be good enough to keep getting better.

Given how much offense the Blue Jackets have lost this offseason they are going to need this sort of step from their best young forward.

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.

Flames stash Sam Bennett with new deal, cap challenges remain

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All things considered, the Calgary Flames’ new deal with Sam Bennett is well-manicured.

OK, with that mustache humor trimmed away, let’s note that the Flames avoided salary arbitration with Bennett, signing the 23-year-old to a two-year deal that carries a $2.55 million cap hit (so it’s $5.1M total).

Let’s start with the stuff that will push Flames fans from relieved back to possibly unsettled. (No, this isn’t Milan Lucic-related.)

The Flames still have three RFAs to sign: star-agitator Matthew Tkachuk, interesting goalie David Rittich, and hidden gem Andrew Mangiapane, yet Cap Friendly estimates that Calgary only has about $7.4M in cap space remaining.

Now, with 22 roster spots covered in that estimate — including an additional goalie in Jon Gillies — the Flames can make some tweaks to earn some room. Even so, it feels like it’s going to be a tight squeeze, to the point that something has to give. While I wouldn’t be surprised if the Flames used some mix of loyalty pitches and RFA leverage to keep Tkachuk’s price down — especially being that Timo Meier gave the Sharks such a sweet deal at $6M a pop — I really don’t think it would be that outrageous to see Tkachuk pester his way to the $7M range by himself.

The good news is that, all things considered, Bennett’s deal doesn’t put the Flames in too big of a bind. It’s not desirable to the level of the Sharks somehow convincing Kevin Labanc to take just $1M for a year, but … hey, perhaps the Sharks are truly unmatched in this regard.

It’s key to judge Bennett as a $2.55M man, not as the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

This has been a pretty strange ride for Bennett, really. He came into the league drawing some mockery for failing to do a pull-up at the 2014 combine, yet some of Bennett’s greatest moments have come when he’s been a hoss:

And, judging by his mustache, Bennett’s also add some Hostetler to his brand. The hits, workout questions, and fights can be more fun to ponder than his iffy production, although sometimes the hits also go too far.

The 2018-19 season more or less tells you what you need to know about Bennett’s production so far. While he did miss time this year (limited to 71 games played), he scored 27 points, one more than the 26 Bennett generated in both 2016-17 and 2017-18.

His draft pedigree makes you hope for at least a little bit more, and there are certain metrics that indicate that Bennett has been a little unlucky, such as this RAPM chart from Evolving Wild, which shows a mild disparity between his actual offense, and what his expected production could have been in 2018-19:

At $2.55M, the Flames aren’t paying a particularly big fee for Bennett’s pedigree, which is good because money is tight, and expecting too much more from Bennett would likely come down to building up false hopes.

The price is fine, and now the Flames can redirect their attention to the more important (and more challenging) tasks of locking up their remaining RFAs to team-friendly deals, particularly Tkachuk.

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.

Flames still face cap challenges after Lucic-Neal trade

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The Calgary Flames faced a cap crunch with James Neal on the books, and they still face potential issues with Milan Lucic being traded in at $500K cheaper.

[More on the contract situations here, and Lucic vs. Neal on ice in this post.]

That’s a lot of money under most circumstances, but $500K goes fast in the modern NHL. In fact, $500K wouldn’t cover the minimum salary of a single player. Every dollar could end up counting for the Flames, so it’s nothing to sneeze at, but things could be tight nonetheless. It may even force someone other than Neal out of the fold.

While the Flames currently boast an estimated $9.973 million in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, that money will dry up quickly. They still need to hammer out deals for RFAs Matthew Tkachuk, David Rittich, Sam Bennett, and Andrew Mangiapane.

Really, would it shock you if Tkachuk and Rittich came in at $10M combined? Such costs are real considerations for the Flames, assuming they can’t convince Tkachuk to take a Kevin Labanc-ian discount.

In Ryan Pike’s breakdown of the cap situation for Flames Nation, he found that Calgary may still have trouble fitting everyone under the cap by his estimations, even if the Flames bought out overpriced defenseman Michael Stone. Buying out Stone seems like a good starting point as we consider some of the calls Treliving might need to make before the Flames’ roster is solidified.

Buying out Stone in August: Stone, 29, has one year left on a deal that carries a $3.5M cap hit and matching salary. If the Flames bought him out, they’d save $2.33M in 2019-20, as Stone’s buyout would register a cap hit of about $1.167M in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

As frustrating as it would be for the Flames to combine dead money in a Stone buyout with Troy Brouwer‘s buyout (remaining $1.5M for the next three seasons), it might just be necessary. Really, it might be the easiest decision of all.

Granted, maybe someone like the Senators would take on Stone’s contract if the Flames bribed them with picks and/or prospects, much like the Hurricanes did in taking Patrick Marleau off of the Maple Leafs’ hands?

Either way, there’s a chance Stone won’t be making $3.5M with the Flames next season.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Trade Sam Bennett’s rights? With things getting really snug, and the forward unlikely to justify being the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, maybe the Flames would be better off moving on by sending Bennett/his RFA rights to another team and filling that roster spot with a cheaper option?

If a team coughed up a decent pick and/or prospect for Bennett, assuming he needs a change of scenery, it could be a win for everyone. The Flames might not be comfortable about that yet with Bennett being 23, but it should at least be discussed.

Trade an expiring contract player? T.J. Brodie ($4.65M), Michael Frolik ($4.3M), and Travis Hamonic ($3.857M) all seem to be signed at reasonable prices, if not mild bargains. All three are only covered through 2019-20, however, making it reasonable to picture them as parts of various trade scenarios. In fact, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the Flames were working on a potential deal involving Brodie and then-Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri, and Kadri admitted on “31 Thoughts” that he didn’t waive his clause to allow Calgary to trade for him.

***

Over the years, including this summer with LaBanc and Timo Meier signing sweet deals for the Sharks, sometimes RFAs take care off cap concerns for their teams. There are scenarios where such constraints actually help the given team land some discounts; it sure felt that way when the Bruins got a deal with Torey Krug back in 2016.

As of this writing, it seems like the Flames might face a tight squeeze in fitting under the cap.

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.

Youth is being served early in Stanley Cup playoffs

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For all the value of postseason experience, youth is off to a nice start in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Teenage defenseman Miro Heiskanen built on his stellar rookie season in his playoff debut with Dallas, 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov tried to carry Carolina back from a big deficit, early 20-somethings Mitch Marner and William Nylander continue to be among Toronto’s best players and young Matthew Tkachuk did his part to finally win a playoff game with the Calgary Flames.

The NHL is getting younger and more skilled, and youth is being served in a big way early in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They may not get the attention like Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine or Toronto’s Auston Matthews, but Heiskanen and Svechnikov turned in two of the more impressive playoff performances in recent history for players before their 20th birthdays.

”Some people, it’s hard and some people it’s pretty easy, and those are the people it looks like it’s pretty easy,” Hurricanes forward Teuvo Teravainen said of Svechnikov and fellow Finn Heiskanen. ”They don’t stress too much. They just go out and play and have some fun.”

Svechnikov became the youngest player in 22 years to score twice in a playoff game and the third teen to put up two goals in NHL postseason history after Pierre Turgeon in 1988, Eddie Olczyk in 1985 and Don Gallinger in 1943. The 2018 second overall pick will try to help Carolina even its first-round series against Washington in Game 2 Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

”There’s not pressure on him,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said. ”Just go do it. Go enjoy it. Go have fun. That’s what this time of year is about, and we’re going to need even more from him if we’re going to advance.”

The Stars won in Nashville thanks in large part to Heiskanen’s goal and assist in Game 1 . At 19 years, 266 days old, he became the youngest defenseman in franchise history to score in the playoffs and the fifth teenage rookie defenseman with two points in his postseason debut.

”My 19-year-old year, when it was April, I was drinking beers in my frat basement,” Dallas defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. ”What he is doing is just incredible. It’s so special. He is so good, it is just such a pleasure to watch him play and to be on his team. He’s such an asset. He’s going to do this for 20 years and I can’t wait to watch him.”

Coach Jim Montgomery would love to see Heiskanen and 22-year-old rookie Roope Hintz play like this for several more weeks. Game 2 in Nashville is Saturday (6 p.m. ET, CNBC).

In Boston, the Bruins have to be better in Game 2 (8 p.m. ET, NBC) on Saturday after losing the series opener on home ice. Marner was a big part of that with his two-goal game, including being just the fifth player to score a shorthanded goal on a penalty shot in the playoffs.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

”He’s an elite player in the league at a young age,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”Years ago I remember (people saying about Wayne) Gretzky, ‘Why doesn’t anybody hit that guy?’ Well, it’s not that easy.”

It’s not easy to hit or stop Nylander, either. The 22-year-old Swede scored for the second consecutive game and appears to have solved his late-season dry spell.

”It’s good for me,” Nylander said. ”I’ve been thinking just to hit the net and get it on it.”

In Calgary, Tkachuk’s two goals a series-opening victory against the Colorado Avalanche snapped his six-game goal drought, though the 21-year-old’s agitating ways stuck as much as his scoring. Teammate Andrew Mangiapane, 23, also scored in his playoff debut and the West’s top seed is off and running with Game 2 Saturday night in Calgary (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

”Now all of those guys have got their first game out of the way, they should get some confidence,” coach Bill Peters said. ”We’ll get better as the series goes along.”

INJURY WATCH

Even in the hockey-speak of upper- and lower-body injuries, playoff time brings an extra cloud of secrecy. Seemingly everyone is day-to-day or a game-time decision.

That’s the case for Carolina defenseman Calvin de Haan, who practiced Friday after missing the past six games with an upper-body injury. Coach Rod Brind’Amour said he hopes de Haan can play ”at some point” and added defenseman Jaccob Slavin was fine after getting a day off for playing a lot of minutes Thursday night.

Boston forward Jake DeBrusk is questionable with the injury that knocked him out of Game 1 against the Maple Leafs. Cassidy said if DeBrusk can’t play, veteran David Backes will go into the lineup.

AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker in Nashville and Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Mike Smith unlikely hero as Flames shutout Avalanche in Game 1

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Mike Smith certainly didn’t start this season on a positive note and while he did improve as the campaign went on, goaltending was still a big question mark for Calgary going into the series. Few would have predicted that Smith would end up being the standout in this battle between two high-powered offenses, but that was the case in the Flames’ 4-0 victory over the Avalanche.

Philipp Grubauer, who also had a poor start to the season before bouncing back, did hold up for most of the game. He couldn’t save the Avalanche Thursday night, but he kept them in this one despite the lopsided final score. It wasn’t until late in the second period that the Flames first solved him.

Continuing with the theme of Game 1 defying expectations, rather than one of the Flames’ many offensive stars netting the goal, it was Andrew Mangiapane, who has just eight career goals and was making his postseason debut. For a moment, he looked like an elite forward, weaving through the Avalanche and outmaneuvering Grubauer before finishing him with a backhand.

Late in the second period, Matthew Tkachuk capitalized on a power-play opportunity to score his first career playoff goal. That 2-0 edge would hold for most of what remained until the floodgates opened late. Mikael Backlund added another power-play goal at 17:01 of the third period then just 14 seconds later, Tkachuk scored again to make it 4-0.

Colorado was the clear underdog going into this series, so from that perspective this outcome wasn’t surprising even if how we got to it did deviate from the script. At the same time, the Avalanche couldn’t be discounted and still shouldn’t be. Any team headlined by Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen has the potential to be very dangerous and the Flames know full well that their work is far from done.

Avalanche-Flames Game 2 from Scotiabank Saddledome will be Saturday night at 10:30 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.