Max Pacioretty

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

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.

Will 2020 Stanley Cup be the toughest ever to win?

During the latest episode of “Our Line Starts,” Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might just be the toughest to ever win.

However you feel about that, others argued similarly. Back in mid-April, Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty also argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might require the most from players.

“I think this will be the hardest Stanley Cup to win out of all of them,” Pacioretty told Gary Lawless of the Golden Knights’ website. “Look at all the obstacles. Who knows when we’re going to play, where, fans or no fans, everything is up in the air …”

Again, Pacioretty made that observation in April, before the NHL announced its return-to-play plans. Jones and Sharp argued their point with more information about the process. The larger arguments remain pretty similar, though.

Of course, as Jones and others also note, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear. Laying out a play to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup doesn’t mean you’ll reach that destination.

But Pacioretty and others provide some room for debate. Could a run for the 2020 Stanley Cup prove to be the toughest of them all?

How a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup could be especially difficult

While the sheer uncertainty of the situation provides the best fodder, you could also lean on the nitty gritty details. Consider how difficult the path could be for a Qualifying Round team trying to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Said team would jump into a high-stakes, best-of-five series with a potentially dangerous opponent. Only then would they make the typical “Round of 16” you’d associate with the postseason.

The NHL hasn’t announced how long each (traditionally best-of-seven) First Round and Second Round series would be. However, we do know that the league aims for best-of-seven series during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, along with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

So … yeah, that could present a treacherous path. Especially for teams in that Qualifying Round, but Round Robin teams like Pacioretty’s Golden Knights wouldn’t have it easy, either. And that’s before we get into the logistics of living in a hub city, potentially away from family, friends, and other comforts.

NHL seasons have faced other extraordinary/unusual challenges

Yes, these are strange times — in some ways, unprecedented — but the NHL’s seen other serious challenges.

As you may know, the league faced serious disruption from another epidemic. The 1919 Stanley Cup was not awarded thanks to “The Spanish Flu.” (Gare Joyce recently looked back at that, and how it may illuminate the league’s struggles with COVID-19, for Sportsnet.)

If the NHL manages to award the 2020 Stanley Cup, it won’t be alone in the league forging on during tough moments. Back in 2017, Stan Fischler looked back at the NHL operating during World War II, and all of the challenges that ensued.

Each team had many players who were on active service during the war. In hockey’s “Victory Lineup” at the start of the 1942-43 season, the Boston Bruins had 16 players, the Canadiens 11, the Chicago Black Hawks seven, the Brooklyn Americans eight, the Detroit Red Wings eight, the New York Rangers 19 and the Maple Leafs 14.

Pacioretty himself weighed the significant challenges of going for the 2020 Stanley Cup with some unusual advantages. Most obviously, players will be as healthy as they’ve ever been this late in a season.

Considering how people often complain of rigorous travel, one perk of the “hub city” system would involve far more limited movement. (From a quality of life standpoint, that’s probably mostly negative. Players would prefer to see friends and family, and the comforts of home. But still, it’s worth at least mentioning in passing.)

2020 Stanley Cup not the only unusual circumstance

Thanks to lockouts and/or lockout-shortened seasons, we’ve also seen players enter postseasons in less typical circumstances. Sure, some will worry that the 2020 Stanley Cup winner might get the “asterisk treatment.” There are people who probably still discredit, say, the 2005-06 Hurricanes for winning it all during an unusual season.

Overall, Jones, Sharp, and Pacioretty all have decent larger points. The sheer uncertainty of this situation should make it difficult. That’s especially true for the NHL players who are most aptly “creatures of habit.”

Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman candidly spoke about the many obstacles the NHL faces in determining a 2020 Stanley Cup winner while managing risks. It won’t be easy to win it all, but then again, it rarely is, right?

Check out the full episode of “Our Line Starts” below:

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.

Biggest surprises, disappointments for 2019-20 Canadiens

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 Montreal Canadiens.

Carey Price couldn’t sustain last season’s rebound

Few goalies dominate like Price did from 2013-14 through 2016-17. At least in the modern NHL, where steady and elite goaltending is hard to come by.

The downside to that dominance is that the Canadiens paid for the Price of that run, while they’ve instead received a fading talent.

Then again, after a disappointing 2017-18 season, Price showed plenty of flashes of his elite self in 2018-19, going 35-24-6 with a .918 save percentage. That .918 mark actually slightly exceeds Price’s career average of .917. Unfortunately, Price fell in the middle in 2019-20, producing a .909 save percentage with a middling 27-25-6 record.

Placing all the blame on Price is unfair. Yet, when you hand a goalie a contract that carries a $10.5 million AAV (and whopping $15M salary this season), people are going to expect outstanding netminding. Considering how much cap space that eats up on a team with quite a bit of quality but not much true star power, you kind of give yourself little choice but to demand star-level work from Price.

It’s probably a wise idea for the Canadiens to end this stretch of trying to get their money’s worth by sheer volume, though.

Price has already shown signs of wear and tear at age 32. Leaning on Price for 58 appearances in 71 games isn’t exactly ideal in an age of load management. Price tied Connor Hellebuyck for the NHL lead with 58 games played, and Hellebuyck is 26.

The Habs would be wise to dip into what looks like a strong goalie market to give Price some help — and competition.

Drouin ranks as one of the (other) biggest disappointments for Canadiens

GM Marc Bergevin’s reputation as a shrewd trader rises to the point that executives might not want to return his calls. Flipping Marco Scandella and others already seemed strong. Winning the Max Domi trade keeps looking better with every subsequent Alex Galchenyuk trade. Even the Shea WeberP.K. Subban swap looks a lot more reasonable with Subban’s sad slippage.

But they weren’t all homers, and things seem grim regarding Jonathan Drouin, who Bergevin landed for still-intriguing defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.

Not all of Drouin’s struggles were his fault, as injuries limited Drouin to 27 games played in 2019-20.

It would be overly optimistic to chalk up Drouin being in trade rumors to injuries alone, though. As exciting as Drouin’s skills can be, he gives up as much — if not more — than he creates. Just look at this rather unsettling even-strength comparison between Drouin and Galchenyuk, via Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts.

Keeping it even-strength is actually kinder to Drouin, too, as Galchenyuk’s generally been more effective on the PP.

(Speaking of the power play, Montreal’s unit was better than the 2018-19 version, but that’s damning with faint praise because that group was a disaster.)

Suzuki among rare positive surprises for Canadiens

PHT will break down some reasons for optimism regarding the Canadiens’ future. Of course, with any such endeavor, a lot of that talk hinges on projections. The more you dive into hypotheticals and subjective measures, the less you know.

So it’s often nice to see a young player deliver at the NHL level, right now.

The Canadiens continue to make lemonade from the lemons of trading Max Pacioretty. While Tomas Tatar led the team with 61 points, Nick Suzuki ranked fifth with 41. Tatar was an outlier for the Habs points-wise, as Suzuki really was far behind Phillip Danault (47 points), Max Domi (44), or Brendan Gallagher (43).

Suzuki climbing the ranks is especially soothing since Jesperi Kotkaniemi took a significant step back as a sophomore.

With Cole Caulfield highlighting a widely-praised farm system, the Canadiens could close their eyes and picture things all coming together. Seeing Suzuki actually deliver makes those dreams seem more feasible, too.

Maybe the Canadiens can pull off more positive surprises around the 2020 NHL Draft?

MORE ON THE CANADIENS:

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.