Paul Fenton

Panarin Draisaitl Hart
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PHT Morning Skate: Panarin, Draisaitl spurring Hart Trophy debates

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• An argument for Artemi Panarin being the Hart frontrunner, whether the Rangers make the playoffs or not. (Blueshirt Banter)

• Travis Yost breaks down more than one conundrum the Rangers face regarding Henrik Lundqvist, and their goaltending in general. (TSN)

• Panarin isn’t the only one getting talked up, as Andrew Berkshire recently did a deep dive on Leon Draisaitl pushing for the Hart. This was posted before Draisaitl’s four-goal, five-point outburst from Monday, but it’s still worth looking at. (Sportsnet)

• Let’s bring that Panarin, Draisaitl, and Hart Trophy talk together with a look at that race. (ESPN)

• The coronavirus is disrupting international hockey events, as the IIHF canceled tournaments and Swiss League postponed playoffs. (The Hockey News)

• Amalie Benjamin offers up a slice of life for Cammi Granato, who is now a full-time pro scout for Seattle’s expansion franchise. Granato explains to Benjamin that “it’s a natural progression,” even if Granato also believes she still has a lot to learn. The profile is part of NHL.com’s celebration of Gender Equality Month. (NHL.com)

• Penguins fans might be feeling worried as their team is mired in a six-game losing streak. Adam Gretz breaks down how this team has responded to similar slumps during the Sidney Crosby era. The basic takeaway: the Penguins bounce back quickly. (Pensburgh)

Justin Williams wishes he had made a bigger offensive impact so far (six points in 16 games) but otherwise feels like himself during his return. He remains a remarkably strong play-driver, particularly for a 38-year-old. (The News & Observer)

• Former Wild GM Paul Fenton stumbled through some missteps, no doubt. The Kevin Fiala trade, however, looks like a deft bit of movement. Now the Wild just need to take the next step and embrace my nickname, “The Fiala Bear.” (Star-Tribune)

• The Canucks are allowing a troublingly high rate of scoring chances on defense. That’s especially glaring whenever Quinn Hughes isn’t on the ice. (Vancouver is Awesome)

• What are Habs GM Marc Bergevin’s plans for the offseason? (Featurd)

• Craig Berube’s blunt way of discussing the Blues ranks as one of his strengths. (St. Louis Game Time)

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Is Boudreau on the hot seat as wilting Wild face Lightning?

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Even under better circumstances, where coaches aren’t dropping like flies, it would be fair to wonder about Bruce Boudreau.

Don’t get me wrong; I’d rank Boudreau among the very best bench bosses in the NHL. Yet, as we’ve seen with a strong coach like Gerard Gallant and a big name like Mike Babcock, few coaches are immune to this recent bug.

Let’s take a look at Boudreau’s situation, and that of the Wild, as they host the locomotive Lightning on NBCSN tonight.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Boudreau and the Wild suffering through more than just lineup card gaffes

Again, with Gallant and other coaches surprisingly on the market, this ranks as a tense time for any coach whose team is meandering. Boudreau and the Wild stand out even by those standards.

Most clearly, the team can point to an immediate mistake. Boudreau admitted that he made a “dumb mistake” that left the Wild with only five defensemen in a brutal 7-3 loss to the Penguins on Tuesday.

“It was a mistake I made,” said Boudreau after the game. “It was all my fault. I do the lineups first thing in the morning, and the first thing that goes down is the lowest number. I put Donato on and forgot Pateryn. When I looked and saw [the lineup card] was full, I figured I did it right. It was a dumb mistake. Never done that before. Just hard to do the game with five D. I take full blame for that.”

That embarrassing loss pushed Minnesota’s losing streak to four in a row. The bad times extend beyond that, as the Wild only won once in their last seven games (1-5-1) and find themselves eight points out of a playoff spot. What seemed like a season-turning December hot streak now feels like a faint memory.

Combine this dire standings situation with the Lightning playing at an incredible high level, and it seems like a disaster in the making.

Boudreau is no stranger to the hot seat

Then again, Boudreau’s been here before.

Almost exactly one year ago, PHT asked if the Wild’s future should include Boudreau. We selected Boudreau for the “Under Pressure” feature heading into 2018-19, and his mild playoff semi-guarantee didn’t work out. Remarkably, Boudreau has persisted, even remaining in place when the team changed GMs to Bill Guerin.

Honestly, it’s kind of shocking to see Boudreau still behind that Wild bench, his face turning troubling colors as the team struggles.

Some might even get a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” vibe from wondering if this is the time Boudreau might go. We’ve even seen players call Boudreau out before, like when Jason Zucker called him out, but then apologized. How many lives does this cat have left, though?

The Wild would probably be better off bottoming out, but they’re instead choosing the pass of Sissyphus. Boudreau is one of the best at push that boulder up hill, yet you have to wonder if it’s all kind of pointless. Especially when you consider the contender who might stand in stark contrast on Thursday.

Lightning aren’t exactly an easy draw

It’s almost cruel to send the Wild in against the Lightning right now. They’ve stood out as one of the best teams in the NHL lately, seemingly rekindling some of last (regular) season’s magic.

You don’t need to dig too deep into the numbers. Simply recall that they recently went on a 10-game winning streak, and won 11 of their last 12.

However hot Boudreau’s seat is, this tough game opens a crucial stretch. To start, this represents the beginning of a seven-game homestand, pretty much all against challenging opponents. Zoom out and the stakes grow: the Wild play 11 of their next 12 games at home.

Just check out this enormously important stretch:

Jan. 16: vs. Tampa Bay
Jan. 18: vs. Dallas
Jan. 20: vs. Florida
Jan. 22: vs. Detroit
Feb. 1: vs. Boston
Feb. 4: vs. Chicago
Feb. 6: vs. Vancouver
Feb. 7: at Dallas
Feb. 9: vs. Colorado
Feb. 11: vs. Vegas
Feb. 13: vs. Rangers
Feb. 15: vs. San Jose

So, tonight’s game against the Lightning might not be make-or-break, but the next month sure seems that way. And that’s as close to “fair” as an opportunity you’ll see for coaches right now … assuming Boudreau gets a full swing at this.

John Walton will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage on Thursday with Mike Milbury and Ben Lovejoy.

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.

Wild get strong value with Fiala signing

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The Minnesota Wild checked off the final box on their offseason to-do list on Wednesday, signing winger Kevin Fiala to a two-year, $6 million contract ($3M AAV).

While former Wild GM Paul Fenton justifiably gets roasted for the Nino NiederreiterVictor Rask trade, Fiala for Mikael Granlund should be graded as “Incomplete.” Fiala, 23, is younger than the 27-year-old Granlund, and comes at almost half the price, as Granlund carries a $5.75M cap hit through the final season of his current deal. When it comes to Granlund vs. Fiala, it’s relevant to wonder if the Wild were always going to walk away from Granlund, making Fiala a logical replacement being that he’s cheaper and younger.

The most interesting question is: how much better can Fiala get?

In some ways, the situation reminds me a bit of the Montreal Canadiens acquiring Max Domi, and then giving him a two-year deal. It turns out that Montreal probably wishes it could have signed Domi for longer, as he enjoyed a breakout season in 2018-19. Fiala might be primed for something similar in 2019-20, at least if the pieces fall the right way.

We’ve seen flashes of brilliance over the years from Fiala, who brings considerable speed to the table.

Fiala scored a number of big goals during his Nashville Predators days, including this one that clinched a double-overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets:

The Swiss scorer also overcame what looked like a devastating leg injury, one that’s still difficult to watch:

Even so, the Predators lost patience as Fiala’s potential didn’t always translate to production.

As with a lot of players who get traded, Fiala’s lack of puck luck stands out. He only scored on 7.6 percent of his shots last season with Nashville, and that cold shooting continued in 19 games with the Wild, where he only converted on 7 percent of his shots on goal. You can understand why excitement is a little more muted for Fiala following a 13-goal season in 2018-19 after he managed a career-high of 23 goals in 2017-18.

Again, though, consider potential parallels with Domi.

Domi’s final season with the Coyotes was a disaster, as he only managed nine goals (and 45 points) with a miserable 6 shooting percentage in 2017-18. A year later, Domi scored 28 goals (and 72 points), with his shooting percentage skyrocketing to 13.8.

Now, I’m not saying Fiala is going to flirt with 30 goals and 70 points in 2019-20, but he was on a trajectory where 25 goals wouldn’t be totally out of the question, and like Domi, Fiala has the pedigree of a first-rounder (Fiala was picked 11th overall in 2014).

One could fear Fiala being Another Mason Raymond: a speedy player who doesn’t have the skill to make the most of that skating. But I’m not alone in thinking that Fiala could move the needle; The Athletic’s Ian Tulloch listed Fiala at No. 5 on his list of breakout candidates for next season (sub required):

He isn’t one of those speedsters who just gains the zone and fires a low percentage shot from the outside (e.g. Kasperi Kapanen or Jake Virtanen). He’s consistently been one of the better players in the league at making a pass after gaining the zone, which Harman Dayal helped show is an extremely important aspect of generating offence in the modern game.

I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if Fiala at $3M ends up being a steal for the Wild … especially if he can get some bounces.

 

For a Wild team that could use some value contracts, and a new GM in Bill Guerin, this is a solid win.

Now we just need to convince people to start calling him “The Fiala Bear.”

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.