Mikael Granlund

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Will Laviolette bring out best of Predators?

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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 Nashville Predators. 

In the grand scheme of things, I’d rate Peter Laviolette as a very good coach, if not a great one.

Even so, there have been times when the Predators haven’t felt optimized, and that inspires some questions about whether swapping out P.K. Subban for Matt Duchene will take this team to the next level. Here are a few areas where Laviolette’s coaching style and decisions become a big x-factor.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

Integrating the new guy: Nashville has experienced mixed results from David Poile’s many big trades.

Kyle Turris is facing a legit crisis of confidence. Mikael Granlund really didn’t move the needle, Wayne Simmonds barely produced any offense as a rental, and Nick Bonino‘s been a meh addition at best. Blaming Laviolette isn’t totally fair, but he must work to make sure that Duchene is placed in the best possible situation to succeed.

That might require some experimentation.

Would the Predators be better off with Duchene on a top line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, or should Ryan Johansen remain between them? Should they try to find two different duos from those four? Might Duchene be better off as a winger with less offensive responsibility? Laviolette must find the right answers.

Rehabbing: It’s almost as important to get more out of Turris and Granlund.

Can Laviolette convince Turris to put struggles behind him? Don’t underestimate the power of a clean slate … unless Turris is simply done as an effective top-six or even top-nine forward.

Is Granlund better off as a center or wing, and where should he slot in the lineup? Nashville still needs to solve that riddle.

Powering up: The Predators’ power play was absolutely miserable last season, and while the team hired someone new to run the power play, it’s hard not to put some blame on Laviolette, too.

Their excessive reliance on point shots and far-too-defensemen-heavy focus was easy for even a layman to see, so why did Laviolette stand idly by? Did he learn from those issues, and if he didn’t, can his new PP coach Dan Lambert make up the difference?

Perhaps the Duchene – Subban roster swap will fix some of the problems for the Predators, as there should be an organic push to go for what works more (four forwards and one defenseman, forwards taking more shots) than before, when Nashville might have been trying to placate both Subban and Roman Josi. That said, as skilled as Josi is, if he’s still too much of a focal point on the power play, then the results may remain middling. With Subban out of town, Nashville may see a step back at even-strength, too, making better man advantage work that much more crucial.

Handling the goalies: On paper, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros rank as one of the most reliable duos in the almost inherently unreliable goaltending position.

But there are still ways a coach can mess this up. Making the right calls regarding when to play Rinne or Saros – depending upon rest and possible playoff meltdowns – could very well decide a close series, or even a playoff push if things are bumpy at times in 2019-20.

Eeli’s struggling: Eeli Tolvanen is far from the only frustrating prospect, but it feels like the risks are increasing that he’s going to fall into the Jesse Puljujarvi Zone of Prospect Dread. Why not give him a little more room to breathe and see if Tolvanen can keep his head above water enough at five-on-five that his deadly release could be another weapon for Nashville’s offense?

It won’t be easy to ace all of those tests, but Laviolette’s proficiency is a huge X-factor as the Predators hope to compete for a Stanley Cup.

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.

Wild need to hope Parise, Staal are capable of another big 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 Minnesota Wild. 

When you look at the top returning scorers for the Minnesota Wild there is a pretty common theme among almost all of them.

Almost all of them are in their mid-30s.

The group of Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker, and Mikko Koivu (the top-six returning scorers from last year’s team) will have an average opening night age of 33, while Spurgeon and Zucker are the only ones that will be under 30 (and even Spurgeon will turn 30 in November).

Add new free agent signing Mats Zuccarello (turning 33 this season) into that mix and it is just one more significant, big-money player on the other side of 30.

That is the bulk of their salary cap space and the players they will be relying on most to carry the offense. That could be a problem because eventually every player in the league slows down and has age take a bite out of their production.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The big X-factor for the Wild this season will be how much their veterans have remaining in their tanks. Especially when it comes to Parise and Staal.

The 2018-19 season was a huge bounce-back for Parise as he rebounded across the board in almost every major offensive category. He generated more shots, scored more goals, was a better possession driver than he had been in previous seasons and put together what was his best season in three years.

Staal, meanwhile, had his third consecutive strong season with the Wild and continued what has been a career rebirth after looking to be finished as a top-line player at the end of the 2015-16 season. Since joining the Wild he has been one of the top-25 goal-scorers in the entire league and one of the primary drivers of the team’s offense.

But how much longer can they keep going at the rate they produced at last season? It’s an important question because unless a young player or two like a Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin, or Jordan Greenway takes a big step forward the Wild are again going to be relying on players in their mid-30s to be the top offensive players on the team. That is a problem because players in their mid-30s don’t typically produce at a great level.

There were only 16 forwards in the NHL a season age 35 or older. Out of that group only one of them (Justin Williams) scored at least 20 goals, while only two (Williams and Joe Thornton) topped 50 points.

Over the past five seasons there have only been nine forwards (out of 63) age 35 or older that scored at least 20 goals and at least 50 points in the same season.

Staal barely topped those two numbers (22 goals, 52 points) a year ago at age 34, while Parise managed to do so for the first time in three years. There is no guarantee either one of them can do it again.

Any regression or decline from one (or both) could be even more costly because some of the younger, core players that have been top producers in recent years and helped keep the Wild competitive are now playing for different teams (Nino Niederreiter is in Carolina; Mikael Granlund is in Nashville; Charlie Coyle is in Boston).

If the Wild can not get their young players to take a step forward and become top-line players, or if veterans players like Parise, Staal, and Zuccarello do not continue to defy aging curves their offense could be in a lot of trouble this season.

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.

Replacing Fenton, Spurgeon’s future among biggest questions for Wild

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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 Minnesota Wild. 

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild.

1. Who will replace Paul Fenton as general manager?

Even though Paul Fenton’s reign of error as Minnesota Wild general manager lasted just one forgettable season it was still long enough to do plenty of damage to the organization.

Among the missteps and blunders during those 14 months…

  • He traded Nino Niederreiter, one of the team’s best players, at what was his lowest possible value for Victor Rask in what might be the NHL’s worst one-for-one trade since Hall for Larsson.
  • He alienated Jason Zucker, one of the team’s other top players and an extremely popular member of the community, by repeatedly trying to trade him (why?!) and allowing the details to leak publicly every time.
  • He never seemed to have a clear long-term direction for the team, trading established veterans with term remaining on their contracts for younger, cheaper players, while simultaneously trying to acquire more veteran, big-money players (trying to trade for Phil Kessel; signing Mats Zuccarello). It was impossible to tell if it was a team trying to rebuild or still trying to compete.

Those were just some of the bigger issues, and now the new general manager has to clean up the mess that was left behind.

But who will that new general manager be?

Will owner Craig Leipold be willing to hire another first-time general manager after the Fenton debacle? If so, Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald, and Bill Zito would seem to be the top names.

Or will he go to the NHL’s recycling bin and bring in a more established GM with experience? If so, Ron Hextall and Dean Lombardi have been mentioned, as has Peter Chiarelli despite his horrendous run with the Edmonton Oilers.

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

2. Will any of the new young players take a big step forward?

None of the Wild’s top-eight scorers during the 2018-19 season were under the age of 26 while three of their top-four (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter) were 34 years old. It is definitely an older team at the top of the lineup, and the addition of a soon-to-be 32-year-old Zuccarello only adds to that.

There are still some intriguing young players on the roster and in the organization and it would be pretty helpful for the Wild if one or two of them emerged as a key player this season.

At the top of that list are Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, two of the players acquired by Fenton just prior to the trade deadline this past season.

Donato had a very promising start with the Wild after arriving in the Charlie Coyle trade (the one in-season Fenton trade that had an immediate positive return) and it wasn’t really the result of percentage-driven luck. He was legitimately good and hasn’t looked out of place in his brief NHL career.

Fiala, acquired in the Mikael Granlund trade, is still only 23 years old and has shown 20-goal, 50-point ability in the NHL but regressed a bit last season, especially after the trade. His ability to bounce back from that would be a significant development for the Wild.

3. Will they get Jared Spurgeon re-signed?

Spurgeon may not be one of the biggest names among NHL defenders, but that’s not his fault. He is an outstanding top-pairing defender and should be the team’s biggest priority when it comes to their next long-term contract.

The 29-year-old defender is coming off of a career year offensively (14 goals, 43 points) and has been a rock on the team’s blue line since becoming a regular more than eight years ago. He plays big minutes against other team’s top players, stays out of the penalty box, and is consistently on the positive side of the shot, scoring chances, and goal differentials. If he hits the open market after this season he could be one of the top players available in 2020 free agent class.

He is the Wild’s best all-around defender and keeping him should be a must.

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.

It’s Minnesota Wild Day at PHT

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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 Minnesota Wild. 

2018-19
37-36-9, 83 points (last in Central Division, 11th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Ryan Hartman
Mats Zuccarello

OUT
Eric Fehr
Anthony Bitetto
Pontus Aberg
Nate Prosser
Matt Read

RE-SIGNED
Ryan Donato
Brad Hunt

2018-19 Season Summary

The Minnesota Wild failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season. That’s a pretty solid run, but it’s one that didn’t result in them doing much damage in the spring. In the three previous years, they had been bounced in the opening round of the playoffs. It sure looks like their championship window has been slammed shut given the age of some of their core players.

As you’d imagine, they didn’t get off to the greatest of starts in 2018-19. The Wild had just one win in their first five games, but they managed to rattle off five wins in a row later on in October. Minnesota went 7-6 in November before things really fell apart in the month of December.

The final month of the calendar year didn’t treat the wild too kindly, as they won just four of the 13 games they played in December. Three of the four games they won came against teams that, like Minnesota, didn’t make the playoffs in 2019.

The ups and downs just kept coming for the Wild. They bounced back in January by winning eight of 12 games, but they fall apart again in February when they dropped nine of their 10 games that month. Even though they looked good at times, they clearly weren’t consistent enough to be one of the top eight teams in the Western Conference.

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

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” head coach Bruce Boudreau told the Wild’s website this offseason. “It’s something that I never want to happen again and I think we’re taking steps to make sure that it never does. A little bit has to do with luck and injuries, but it makes for an awful long summer, and as much as you like summer, it’s not what you want when you’re a hockey coach. I don’t know what else to say, other than I’ve hated it and it’s a feeling I don’t want to have to happen again.”

Injuries to key players certainly didn’t help their cause. Mikko Koivu (knee) was limited to 48 games and Matt Dumba (pectoralis muscle) played just 32 contests. Zach Parise, who led the Wild in scoring, only missed eight games, but he’s battled injuries over the last few seasons. There’s no guarantee they’ll be able to count on him for 74 games next year.

This team, which currently has no general manager, has a lot of work to do in order to get themselves back into the top eight. Paul Fenton’s replacement will have some good pieces to work with, but there’s also a long list of older players on the roster, too. Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter and Devan Dubnyk are all at least 33 years old. Their biggest free-agent acquisition, Mats Zuccarello, is going to be 32 once the season starts. That’s an old group.

Also, the fact that Fenton traded Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund away for Victor Rask, Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala probably won’t help Minnesota. On paper, it sure looks like the Wild would’ve been better with the three players they gave away.

How quickly can this team turn themselves around?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Power Rankings: Early look at 2020 NHL free agent class

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The 2019 NHL free agent class has mostly been picked over and is now down to the bargain bin of reclamation projects (and, for some reason, Jake Gardiner).

So let’s start taking a look to the summer of 2020 and the list of names that could be available next summer.

There is a pretty extensive list of big names entering their contract year, including the captain of the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, a recent NHL MVP, and two core players for the Washington Capitals.

Will all of them end up hitting the free agent market? Of course not, they never do because teams do not let their core players get away. But some of them will hit the open market, and it is never too early to start looking at the potential options.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take an early look at the list of potential 2020 free agents.

To the rankings!

1. Nicklas Backstrom Still one of the best all-around centers in the NHL. He is entering the final year of a 10-year, $67 million contract that proved to be an absolute steal for the Capitals given how much Backstrom has contributed over the past decade. The only potential flaws with Backstrom as a free agent: He will turn 33 years old in his first year of a new contract, so you will definitely not be getting the best hockey of his career, and, quite honestly, the Capitals are probably going to keep him.

2. Taylor Hall The 2017-18 NHL MVP is one of the best wingers in the league and contract talks between him and the Devils seem to be slow. If the team does not take a big step forward this season it might be all the incentive he needs to hit the open market. He lost most of this past season to injury, but he is still an impact, top-tier player and a big comeback year will only boost his value even more.

3. Jared Spurgeon This may seem a little high considering some of the other names potentially available next offseason, and especially on defense, but do you know what? Jared Spurgeon is really, really, really good. He may not put up the biggest offensive numbers among defenders in this class, but he is a darn good player that logs a lot of tough minutes, doesn’t get sheltered, and still manages to help his team finish on the plus side when it comes to goals, shots, and scoring chances when he is on the ice. He is a top-pairing defender and a great all-around player and the Wild seem to understand that. If we are to believe the words of general manager Paul Fenton this summer, they intend to re-sign him. Odds he actually hits the open market: Low.

4. Alex Pietrangelo Pietrangelo is an outstanding player, but you can be sure there is going to be a Stanley Cup tax attached to his next contract. Meaning, when you are the captain of a recent Stanley Cup winner your value immediately skyrockets even more. Given how important he is to the Blues (he is their best defender and one of their top players) they will probably be the team paying it.

5. Roman Josi Josi’s contract has been an unbelievable steal for the Predators for the past six years, counting just $4 million against the salary cap since the start of the 2013-14 season. During that time he has had four top-10 finishes in Norris Trophy voting and been one of the most productive defenders in the league, scoring at least 12 goals every season and currently sitting in fourth in total points and sixth in goals among defenders.

6. Braden Holtby Along with Backstrom, the Capitals also have to deal with a contract for their starting goalie. That is two significant core players whose contracts are expiring at the same time, and that is going to present a lot of challenges. If the Capitals have to choose to let one go, Holtby might be the smart choice. The Sergei Bobrovsky contract in Florida is probably the measuring stick for what Holtby can — and will — get, and that just may not be the best use of cap space for the Capitals.
Holtby can still be dominant, but he has shown signs of slowing down over the past two years.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

7. Torey Krug Krug doesn’t look the part of a top-pairing defender and he doesn’t play the toughest minutes in Boston, but there is still a ton of value in an offensive, puck-moving defender that can help drive possession and offense. The problem for the Bruins in keeping him is going to be that they have a lot of contracts to juggle over the next year, including one major contract this summer with their best defender, Charlie McAvoy.

8. Tyson Barrie It is going to be interesting to see what happens to his production in Toronto. He has always been an outstanding and productive defender, and now he gets to feed the puck to a deep, talented group of forwards. Given Toronto’s salary cap situation, as well as the fact one of their other top-defenders, Jake Muzzin (more on him in a second) is also an unrestricted free agent after this season, they are going to have to let someone go.

9. Jake Muzzin — One of the most underrated defenders of his era because he was always overshadowed by Drew Doughty in Los Angeles. Muzzin is an outstanding defensive player but can also move the puck and chip in some offense.

10. Evgenii Dadonov Since returning to the NHL Dadonov has been one of the most productive forwards in the league. He will be 31 at the start of the next deal so you have to be prepared for some decline.

11. Justin Faulk Faulk has been the subject of trade rumors for years now, and he may finally be nearing the end of his time with the Hurricanes one way or another. He is not a perfect player, but he brings a lot to the table offensively and given how tight Carolina’s salary cap situation is starting to get as its young players get better and more expensive, it may not be possible to keep him.

12. Mikael Granlund His debut with the Predators after the trade probably did not go as planned for him or the team, but that’s a ridiculously small sample size and shouldn’t — and doesn’t — outweigh what he has done over the past few years. He is a top-line scorer and should still have a few years of top-line play ahead of him.

13. T.J. Brodie Everything about Brodie’s resume looks great, but there is one big concern that is a bit of a red flag — He is a different (and not as good) player when he is not on the ice next to Mark Giordano. They will not be going as a package deal.

14. Chris Kreider Given the Rangers’ rebuild and what is a reasonable future expectation for Kreider, the Rangers would be wise to consider trading him right now. As long as he does not lose his speed he should still be a good player for a few more years, but there is no guarantee he maintains his current level of play.

15. Mike Hoffman He is a bit of a one dimensional player, but the one dimension is a useful one. He can score. A lot. He is coming off of a huge season in Florida and another big season could price him out of the Panthers’ cap situation, especially if they want to also keep Dadonov.

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.