Nino Niederreiter

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Stuck on zero: Notable NHL players still searching for first goal

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We are a couple of weeks into the 2019-20 NHL season and there have been some surprising players at the top of the goal-scoring leaderboard, including James Neal, Anthony Mantha, Victor Olofsson, Brayden Schenn, and Erik Haula.

Perhaps just as surprising is the list of players still searching for their first goal, fighting through extended early season slumps.

Every player will go through hot streaks and cold streaks over the course of a season, and when those streaks happen now we tend to pay extra attention to them because there is nothing else around them to hide them. A first line player stuck on zero goals after six or seven games will stick out more than a six-or seven-game drought in the middle of March.

Here are eight notable players still trying to find that first goal. We are limiting this to players that have played in at least six games.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights
Games played entering Tuesday:
6
Shots on goal: 16

After scoring 67 goals over the past two seasons Karlsson has gone six games without a goal to open the 2019-20 season. The good news for him: He started each of the past two seasons with zero goals in his first six games before scoring in his seventh game each year.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 14

Barkov has become one of the NHL’s best all-around players over the past couple of years and is one of the reasons for optimism in Florida. He has not scored yet this season but he is doing literally everything else, having already recorded five assists while the Panthers are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts when he is on the ice. Only a matter of time before the puck starts finding the back of the net for him.

Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 13

Getting a full season of Niederreiter is a big reason to like the Hurricanes this season. He was a significant addition in the middle of the 2018-19 season and is an outstanding two-way winger that can defend, drive possession, and help create offense. He is still helping to drive possession at an elite rate. He is not a big-time goal-scorer, but he is always a lock for at least 20 goals.

Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars
Games played entering Tuesday: 7
Shots on goal: 10

The Stars have been one of the league’s most disappointing teams so far and Pavelski might be their most disappointing player through the first seven games. Not only as he failed to score a goal, but only generating 10 shots on goal in seven games is a concerning sign. Some regression had to be expected from his 38-goal campaign a year ago (he had a career-high shooting percentage at age 34, which was never going to be repeated) but this has to be discouraging. He also has just one assist.

Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 21 (combined)

The two recent No. 1 overall picks are two of the most important players on the Devils’ roster from a big picture outlook, and so far both have struggled. Hughes has failed to record a point in his first six games and can not seem to buy a goal. Just another thing that has gone wrong for the Devils in a season where nothing has gone as expected.

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 6

Schwartz had a bizarre 2018-19 season, struggling through one of the worst regular season performances of his career (mostly due to a terrible shooting percentage) before being unstoppable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The trouble for Schwartz this season (unlike last season) is he is not yet generating shots.

Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 4

The Flames will try to sell you on the idea he is doing exactly what they want, providing physical play and serving as some sort of protection for their stars. But man, zero goals, zero points, only four shots on goal, a lot of penalty minutes, a huge contract, and the guy he was traded for (James Neal) can not stop scoring goals for their biggest rival. There is no way that trade is a win at this point.

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.

Nightmare of Niederreiter trade lingers as Rask struggles to earn Wild spot

The 2018-19 season ended up being a disaster both for Victor Rask and the Minnesota Wild, with the Rask – Nino Niederreiter trade being one of the main catalysts for the lightning-quick firing of Paul Fenton. It also seems like that nightmare will linger for Rask heading into 2019-20, at least to start.

Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau indicates that Rask finds himself behind four other centers on the depth chart, and thus might not begin the season as one of 12 forwards expected to dress for regular-season games, as Sarah McLellan reports for the Star-Tribune.

“At this moment, I would say that there are four centers ahead of him now that we’ve seen that [captain Mikko Koivu’s knee] is fine and he can play,” Boudreau said. “It makes it difficult. But this is where you become mentally strong. You wait for your chance, whether it’s Sunday in [the] preseason game and you score two or three, or the first chance you get into a game prove that you can’t be taken out of the game. That’s what it’s about.”

Boudreau added that “I gotta believe his confidence is sagging,” so at least the Wild aren’t trying to deny the obvious.

While this first serves, to some, as another victory lap for the Hurricanes’ side of the trade, and more pie on the face for Fenton, the situation is interesting for a few other reasons.

One that stands out to me is that it’s another reminder that the Wild are focused more on the absolute present than anything else.

I mention that because, from a team-building standpoint, there would be some logic in trying to goose up Rask’s value for an eventual “pump and dump” trade. Even if Rask’s less in a rut and more just a mediocre player going forward, the bottom line is that the 26-year-old carries a $4 million AAV through 2021-22. As horrendous as Rask looked at times this season in only managing nine points in 49 games between the Wild and Hurricanes, it’s not impossible for there to be some bounce-back, particularly if you put him in a position to succeed.

After all, Rask generated seasons of 48 (2015-16) and 45 (2016-17) points, and there were certain circumstantial elements that dragged his numbers down. The Swedish forward dealt with nagging injuries for significant stretches of the season, and only averaged 12:06 TOI, a massive drop from 2017-18, when he averaged 15:23 per night (which itself was a plummet from 2016-17’s career-high average of 17:18).

Now, those numbers don’t make the Rask – Niederreiter trade any easier to stomach, as there really wasn’t much pointing to Rask standing a great chance of hanging with Niederreiter, especially when you expand your view from sheer goals and assists to a player’s all-around impact, as Niederreiter has long been known as a strong play-driver, while Rask … not so much.

But if the Wild were looking more toward trying to optimize for the future, they might want to boost Rask’s numbers to make it possible to trade him for something, rather than having him be a potential $4M black hole and healthy scratch.

That risk is much higher in this current alignment, but that doesn’t mean the Wild are totally in the wrong. Frankly, with the way Rask played in 2018-19, there’s evidence that the team might have 12 better forward options. That’s relevant for a team that still seems eager to try to compete, whether you agree with that stance, lean toward the belief that a more fully-formed rebuild would be the smarter course, or not.

The Wild are continuing to choose “or not,” which means that Rask will need to make a convincing argument to get reps. Apparently Rask still has some convincing to do.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: If we are comparing the Wild right now to where they were at the beginning of the 2018-19 season it would be difficult to argue that they are better following the in-season trades of Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle. But if we are comparing them to where they were at the end of the 2018-19 season they might be a little better. Mats Zuccarello is another big-money player on the wrong side of 30, but he is still good. Mikko Koivu and Matthew Dumba are returning after missing significant portions of the 2018-19 season. There is also some potential with younger players to maybe take a step forward. The important question is whether or not those improvements are enough to get them back in the playoffs and help them return to contention in the Western Conference.

Strengths: The top half of their defense is really good with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Dumba leading the way. Suter is the biggest name and the one that gets most of the attention because he never seems to leave the ice, but don’t overlook the other two. Spurgeon just signed a seven-year contract extension to remain with the team and has been a criminally underrated player for most of his career. Dumba, meanwhile, brings a ton of offensive potential from the blue line and was in the middle of a breakout season until an injury sustained in a fight sidelined him for most of the season. Behind them they have an above average goalie in Devan Dubnyk serving as the last line of defense. When he is on his game, he can carry the team and has been one of the league’s most productive goalies since joining the team in them middle of the 2014-15 season.

Weaknesses: The Wild have a lot of really good veteran players and some young players that could become really good players. What they are lacking is great players. They don’t really have anyone that can be a difference-making, impact player that puts the team on their back for a game (or a stretch of games) and carries it. That kind of limits what your team’s ceiling is among the league’s hierarchy of contenders. The other concern is the age of the core. With Spurgeon now re-signed, they now have six players over the age of 30 signed for at least two more seasons. Several of those players are signed beyond the age of 35. How will all of those players hold up during those contracts?

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Bruce Boudreau is entering his fourth season as the Wild’s head coach and is already going to be working with his third different general manager. That is kind of shocking, not only because the Wild have gone through that much change in their front office, but that the head coach has outlasted all of it. We will put his hot seat rating as a 6 out of 10. He does not have one foot out the door, but he is probably not totally secure, either.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jason Zucker, Zach Parise, and Kevin Fiala are the three players worth keeping a close eye on this season.

One of the more bizarre aspects of Paul Fenton’s one year of error in Minnesota was his apparent burning desire to trade Zucker. He has not only been one of the team’s best two-way players and a popular member of the community, but Fenton was also trying to sell him at what was probably his lowest possible value. A similar move with Niederreiter went about as poorly as could have been expected, and repeating the same mistake with Zucker would have been crushing. As it stands now, Zucker is back in Minnesota and should be poised to have a bounce back year offensively.

Speaking of bounce back years, Parise went through one of his own during the 2018-19 season and saw pretty significant improvements in his production across the board. He is almost certainly never going to be a 40-goal, 90-point player again, but was his bounce back a one-year outlier in what has been a steady decline in recent years? Or can the Wild expect similar production this season?

Of all the players Fenton acquired during the 2018-19 season the one that seems most intriguing is Fiala. He is still only 23 years old, has already shown 20-goal ability in the NHL, and has some fairly promising underlying numbers to his game. He is a better player than what he showed immediately after the trade.

Playoffs or lottery: There is a short-term path back to the playoffs for this team, but a lot of things need to go right in order for that to happen. Realistic outcome is this looks like a team that finishes somewhere between 7th and 11th in the Western Conference. Not good enough to truly contend, but not bad enough to play its way into the highest draft lottery odds.

More
Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?
• 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.

Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?

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Before the 2018-19 season went sideways, the Minnesota Wild had a five-year run where they were a mostly outstanding and consistently underrated hockey team.

They had three 100-point seasons in a four-year stretch and even though they had limited success once they made the playoffs, they were at least always there.

All of that disappeared this past season when the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12 and finished with one of the worst records in franchise history (the .506 points percentage was fourth-worst in their 18-year existence). A lot of things went wrong and resulted in the shocking decision to fire general manager Paul Fenton after just 14 months on the job.

Unfortunately for the Wild, they are still stuck in a brutally competitive division with Nashville, Colorado, Winnipeg, Dallas, and a (potentially) improved Chicago team ahead of them. On top of that they were seven points back of a playoff spot last year in what was one of the weakest Western Conference playoff races ever, are relying heavily on big-money players in their mid-30s this season, still do not have a general manager to call the shots, and could probably use a rebuild that the owner does not seem to want to fully commit to.

Not exactly a great set of circumstances.

So is there a path back to the playoffs this season? Let’s take a look at three key factors that might help.

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

Better Health

While injuries were not a huge factor in the Wild’s regression, they did have a couple of significant ones with the loss of Mikko Koivu (48 games) and defender Mathew Dumba (only 32 games).

Koivu is one of the many mid-30 players on the roster and is not the same player offensively that he was a few years ago, but he’s still an excellent two-way player and key part of their forwards.

Dumba, on the other hand, was the big one. Losing him was a significant blow to the team’s blue line, especially since he was in the middle of a breakout season offensively at the time of his injury. Getting a 23-minute, potential 50-point blue-liner back in the lineup would be significant.

Jason Zucker is still there

Zucker was nearly traded on two separate occasions over the past year and it is probably fortunate for the Wild that both deals fell apart before they could be completed. He is still one of the best all-around players on the team and seems to be a prime bounce-back candidate. He was still a great possession-driver for the Wild last year (they had a 53 percent shot attempt share when he was on the ice) and finished with one of the lowest shooting percentages of his career. The return of a healthy Koivu and Dumba, as well as a bounce-back from Zucker, would help a lot.

Some new faces

Zuccarello is a long-term risk because of his age, but he is still an outstanding playmaker and will upgrade the roster that ended the regular season in Minnesota.

Then you have the young players acquired by former general manager Fenton at the deadline, specifically Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala. There are a lot of reasons to question the direction Fenton sent the team in at the trade deadline, but now that they trades are done all the Wild can do is hope for the best. While there seems to be little hope the Nino Niederreiter trade can produce positive results for them, Donato and Fiala do at least have the potential to become useful.

There is absolutely something that can be salvaged there.

Donato looked promising after the trade from Boston, while Fiala is just one year removed from a 23-goal, 48-point season, is still only 23 years old, and is coming off of a tough shooting percentage and PDO (on ice shooting percentage plus save percentage) year while also posting strong possession numbers. There is potential for a bounce-back there.

More consistent performance from Devan Dubnyk

This might be the most important potential development.

From the moment he arrived in Minnesota during the 2013-14 season Dubnyk has been one of the best, most productive goalies in the league and finished with two top-five finishes in the Vezina Trophy voting. But the 2018-19 season was far from his best as he struggled with consistency, went through one of the worst slumps of his career, and faced yet another heavy workload.

If he is able to return to his previous Minnesota form that is a season-changer for the Wild.

That is a lot of “ifs,” and even if they all go perfectly it still probably will not be enough to make them a Stanley Cup contender. It could, however, get them back in the playoffs.

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.

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.