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Same old questions remain for Oilers

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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 Edmonton Oilers.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers.

1. Who will help Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?

Our Joey Alfieri already touched on this when he looked at the Oilers’ depth scorers being under pressure to produce more, but this really is the single biggest question facing the Oilers this season. Just as it was last year. And the year before. And the year before that.

Unless James Neal finds a time machine and goes back to his age 26 or 27 seasons, or the team figures out a way to salvage the development of Jesse Puljujarvi before it sends him away for some magic beans it’s hard to see where this improvement comes from.

How top-heavy has the Oilers’ lineup been over the past two years? Some numbers for you.

  • With McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have outscored teams by an 88-67 (plus-21) margin and controlled more than 52 percent of the shot attemepts.
  • With only ONE of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 136-115 (minus-21) and controlled only 49 percent of the shot attempts.
  • With NEITHER of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 151-106 (minus-45) and controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts.

When their top two players are not on the ice the Oilers are playing at the level of an early 1990s expansion team.

It is appalling to have what might be the best offensive duo in the league and still be so far away from the playoffs.

Does acquiring James Neal in a swap of bad salaries (in what should be an upgrade) and signing some cheap, reclamation project free agents do enough to help move the needle closer to the playoffs?

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

2. How will they stop teams?

Here is a set of numbers for you to ponder: 25, 25, 8, 28, 30, 30, 19, 23, 28, 30, 22, 26, 16

What are those numbers representing? They are where the Oilers have ranked in goals against (starting with this past season on the left and moving backwards) dating back to the start of the 2006-07 season. Average finish: 24th. The one outlier (the eighth place year) was when Cam Talbot pretty much stood on his head in net and was eventually run into the ground due to a ridiculous workload.

The Oilers are bringing back mostly the same cast of characters on defense that haven’t been good enough, and barring an unexpected miracle they don’t really have a goalie that should be a serious threat to steal games. Mikko Koskinen‘s contract looks to be a mess, while Mike Smith is coming off the worst season of his career and is entering his age 37 season.

This all seems like a tough recipe to make work.

Dave Tippett has a reputation for being a defensive coach (a reputation he doesn’t really seem to like) and is very respected around the league, but how much of an impact can a coach make with a thin defense and two massive question marks in goal? Even if McDavid and Draisaitl repeat their magic and they find some respectable second-line scoring can they actually stop enough teams for any of it to matter?

3. What changes will Ken Holland make?

Holland has two cornerstone players that are already among the best in the league and haven’t even hit their peak years in the NHL yet. It is a great starting point. That is the good news. The bad news is that even though he has McDavid and Draisaitl to start building around he still has what might be the most daunting rebuilding job of any general manager in the NHL. Not only because he has a ton of holes to plug, but because he has to deal with the pressure that is not wasting anymore of McDavid’s best years in the league.

In the past, the Oilers have tried to shake things up by dealing players that were once considered part of the core (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz). They not only failed to capitalize on those trades, but they have quickly run out of such players to deal.

Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins be next? Oscar Klefbom? It seems to only be a matter of time until Puljujarvi gets moved.

No matter who it is, he is going to have to make significant changes to get this team out of its current situation.

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.

Looking at four potential No. 1 goalie battles in 2019-20

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Battles for the No. 1 goalie spot heading into any given season often isn’t where teams want to be.

The uncertainty for hockey’s most important position is unsettling and often means the team embroiled in a training camp battle for that club’s top job is far closer to the draft lottery than the Stanley Cup.

Not everyone can have an Andrei Vasilevskiy or a Ben Bishop.

Today, we will focus on a few teams that don’t necessarily have that position locked up, and look into four battles that should play out once training camp gets underway in a couple month’s time.

1. Edmonton Oilers 

Mikko Koskinen is Peter Chiarelli’s last defining moment in a terrible tenure with the Oilers. Chiarelli, apparently with the blessing of the team, gave .900-save-percentage man Koskinen a three-year, $13.5 million raise because of reasons that may never been fully certain.

The deal paved the way for a lot of scrutiny, the exit of Cam Talbot and the continuation of what was a compounding year of bad in Northern Alberta.

Now, the Oilers have Mike Smith in the mix, the goalie who started 40 games and posted an .898 save percentage for the Calgary Flames last season in a timeshare with David Rittitch. But Smith’s experience in the playoffs led head coach Bill Peters to give him the nod in goal.

And now Smith heads up the road to battle for a job in Edmonton. Sure, Koskinen has the contract, but there’s no question that Smith could outplay him in training camp and set up a big decision for newly-minted coach Dave Tippett. Tippett knows Smith well from his days as the bench boss in Arizona.

2. Arizona Coyotes

Speaking of the desert dogs, what’s the plan there?

They essentially have two starting-caliber netminders with Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper. Raanta’s season was derailed thanks to injury. He made just 12 starts before Kuemper took over the starting role.

Raanta’s 2017-18 campaign was outstanding with a .930 save percentage across 47 starts. The Coyotes had found someone to replace Mike Smith as a solid No. 1.

When the lower-body injury ended Raanta’s season in Nov. 2018, it would have been easy to write off the Coyotes — something many did.

Kuemper would start 55 games, winning 27 of them and posting a .925 save percentage. His play gave the Coyotes a chance down the stretch, and while it ultimately ended with them not making the playoffs, it certainly showed that Arizona had two viable options between the pipes.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That’s what makes this situation interesting. A time-share might be ideal here. It’s something that’s worked for several teams, including the New York Islanders, and to a certain extent, the Boston Bruins — while not a true timeshare — were able to rest Tuukka Rask more with a quality backup, allowing them to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

If general manager John Chayka wants, he also has quite the asset in either goalie on the trade market, too. Kuemper is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will likely be looking for a raise.

For now, they have one of the better goaltending tandems in the league and some decisions to make because of it.

3. Ottawa Senators

Craig Anderson has one year left on a deal that will pay him $4.75 million this coming season.

Anders Nilsson is getting $2.6 million next season and impressed in 26 games played last season after getting shipped to Ottawa from Vancouver.

Mike Condon is set to make $2.4 million this season.

Nilsson seems the best bet to grab the starting role after the Sens gave him a two-year deal earlier this summer. Anderson’s season last year wasn’t great and Condon isn’t going to be the starter after playing two games last season.

Nilsson, on his sixth NHL team since being drafted in 2009 by the Islanders, finally found his stride in Ottawa, posting a .914 save percentage on a bad Senators team.

4. Los Angeles Kings

Yes, Jonathan Quick has four years left and yes, he’s getting paid $5.8 million.

He was also a complete disaster last season between the pipes. So were the Kings, for that matter. But who really stood out among the wreckage was backup Jack Campbell.

While Quick, 33, had a less than ideal .888 save percentage across 46 starts, Campbell, 27, and getting paid $5.125 million less than his teammate, put up a .928 on a very bad team. It’s impressive.

While the Kings haven’t done much to improve themselves this summer, giving Campbell a shot at the starting gig might light a spark elsewhere in their lineup. They did seem to play better in front of him, and he inspired confidence with his play.

Perhaps the time is now to give Campbell is chance and let Quick groom him (and potentially Cal Petersen) as the Kings begin to look to the future.

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

Smith signs in Edmonton, Talbot head to Calgary

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Mike Smith is moving north this summer.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported Sunday that the unrestricted free agent goalie will sign with the Edmonton Oilers when the free agency window opens on Monday, a deal that was made official by the club during the first few hours of free agency. Smith joins the Calgary Flames’ bitter rivals, a team he held the crease for the past two seasons.

Smith is coming off a particularly poor season with a .898 save percentage after splitting time with David Rittich, who is now the favored netminder in the Flames organization despite Smith getting the crease in a disappointing first-round playoff exit.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Seravalli also reported that Cam Talbot is heading the other way and will join the Flames Monday, a move the Oilers confirmed. While Talbot finished last season with the Philadelphia Flyers after getting shipped there at the trade deadline, he spent most of the past four seasons with the Oilers.

It would seem that both Alberta teams are now out of the running for any of those signatures, although they may never have been in the race regardless. Not everyone wants to play in Edmonton and unless they want to be a part of a tandem in Calgary, there are better starting options elsewhere, and likely money, too.

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

The Playoff Buzzer: Dominant Game 1 efforts for Backstrom, Marner, and Smith

  • Mitch Marner did something that only a handful of players in NHL history have done in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ big Game 1 over the Boston Bruins
  • The Carolina Hurricanes put up a great fight against the defending Stanley Cup champions but had just one flaw they have to correct
  • An unlikely hero emerged for the Calgary Flames
  • Capitals defenseman John Carlson tied an NHL postseason record
  • Alex Ovechkin continued to climb another goal-scoring leaderboard

Maple Leafs 4, Bruins 1 (Maple Leafs  lead series 1-0)

The Maple Leafs are already off to a better start in their playoff rematch against the Boston Bruins, jumping out to an early 1-0 series lead thanks to a huge night from Mitch Marner and additional goals from William Nylander and John Tavares. They need their stars to shine, and on Thursday night they did.

Capitals 4, Hurricanes 2 (Capitals lead series 1-0)

The Hurricanes may have been the better team at even-strength and showed they have a chance in this series, but the Capitals’ power play (and penalty kill) was the difference as the defending Stanley Cup champions stole Game 1 away. If the Hurricanes can repeat this effort in Game 2 they stand a great chance to even the series, but they must find an answer for the Capitals’ power play to allow that to happen.

Flames 4, Avalanche 0 (Flames leads series 1-0)

The Calgary Flames’ superstars had a fairly quiet night and they still rolled to a 4-0 shutout win over the Colorado Avalanche. Mike Smith was outstanding in net and the Flames’ defense did a great job shutting down the Avalanche’s big-three, including Mikko Rantanen in his return to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Mike Smith, Calgary Flames. All season, and especially leading up to the playoffs, the big question for the Calgary Flames was whether or not they had the goaltending to go on a deep Stanley Cup run. David Rittich is unproven and regressed down the stretch, while Smith had, for the most part, a brutal year. Playing in his first playoff game in seven years, Smith was the best player on the ice and for one night silenced the doubters.

2. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. Backstrom was a beast for the Capitals in Game 1, scoring a pair of first period goals and then coming up with two huge blocked shots late in the third period to help the Capitals hold off a late Hurricanes rally. He is one of the best all-around centers in the NHL and showed why on Thursday.

3. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs. Entering play on Thursday Marner had scored just three goals in his first 13 career playoff games. He scored two in the Maple Leafs’ Game 1 win and proved to be the team’s most dangerous player as they jumped out to an early series lead over the Bruins.

Highlights of the night

Not long after tying the game against the Bruins, Marner gave the Maple Leafs with the lead with what would prove to be the game-winning goal on a penalty shot and what a move it was! According to the NHL’s Public Relations department, this was just the fifth shorthanded penalty shot goal in NHL playoff history.

While Mike Smith was stopping everything, Andrew Mangiapane got the Flames on the board with this beautiful goal against Philipp Grubauer.

Factoids of the Night

John Carlson’s three first period assists tied an NHL postseason record for most assists in a period. [NHL PR]

Alex Ovechkin moved into 27th place on the NHL’s all-time postseason goal-scoring list [NHL PR]

Friday’s schedule

Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning, Game 2 (CBJ leads 1-0), 7 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)
Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders, Game 2 (NYI leads 1-0), 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)
St. Louis Blues at Winnipeg Jets, Game 2 (StL leads 1-0), 9:30 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)
Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks, Game 2 (SJ leads 1-0), 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)

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.

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.