Robin Lehner

NHL Power Rankings
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NHL Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

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.

Chicago Blackhawks: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Blackhawks surprises and disappointments Kubalik Crawford
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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 Chicago Blackhawks.

Putrid power play spoils special teams

Yes, the Blackhawks aren’t the dynastic team they once were. Their defense, in particular, just can’t keep up like it used to.

But there’s still some serious scoring skill on this roster, and it’s not just the obvious in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks clearly nabbed a steal in Alex DeBrincat, while Dylan Strome, Brandon Saad, Dominik Kubalik and others give Chicago strong four-forward options on the PP.

Yet, for whatever reason, the Blackhawks’ power play simply didn’t click in 2019-20.

The Blackhawks received 217 power-play opportunities, the eighth-highest total in the NHL. Chicago squandered far too many of those chances, managing 33 PPG (tied for 23rd in NHL) and 15.2 success rate (28th). The Blackhawks also gave up eight shorthanded goals, tied for seventh-most in the league.

Chicago sits at a -6 goal differential this season, and can chalk that up to its punchless power play, as their PK was pretty effective. (It just wasn’t good enough to make up for a poor power play.)

Blackhawks goaltending was both a pleasant surprise and an indirect disappointment

Ever since the Blackhawks collapsed from contention, the modified strategy turned to “outscoring their problems.”

Failing on the power play was disappointing in that regard, and it also feels like it contributed to the Blackhawks squandering strong goaltending in 2019-20.

After his surprising free agent departure from the Islanders, Robin Lehner barely missed a beat for Chicago. He managed a .918 save percentage in 33 games before being shipped to the Golden Knights. Considering Chicago’s defense, a .918 mark with the Blackhawks is almost as impressive as his .930 in Barry Trotz’s nurturing defensive system.

Interestingly, Corey Crawford nearly matched Lehner.

Such strong play slipped under the radar, and it’s easy to understand why. Since Jan. 1, Crawford managed merely a 10-9-1 record in 20 games … while generating a fantastic .928 save percentage. Overall, Crawford sits at .917 for 2019-20, just a stride behind Lehner.

The Blackhawks receiving such strong goaltending from one of Lehner or Crawford wouldn’t have been surprising, but both? Yeah, that should count among the surprises for the Blackhawks. At the same time, failing to take advantage of that goaltending edge ranks among their biggest disappointments.

(Deciding to trade Robin Lehner opens up a whole other discussion.)

Kubalik among positive surprises, DeBrincat among disappointments for Blackhawks

Predictably enough, Kane (84 points) and Toews (60) topped Chicago’s scorers in 2019-20. I’m not sure even Dominik Kubalik expected to rank third for the Blackhawks, though.

With 30 goals and 46 points in 68 games, the 24-year-old made a stunning jump from the Swiss league. While Kubalik did not go undrafted, he only barely avoided such a fate .(Los Angeles chose Kubalik 191st overall in 2013.)

Yes, expect Kubalik to cool off next season. Puck luck certainly aided Kubalik on his way to 30 goals, as his shooting percentage was at 19.1.

All of those caveats aside, Kubalik managed strong production out of nowhere, especially considering limited ice time overall. (Kubalik averaged 14:22 per game, although Chicago wisely bumped his deployment up as 2019-20 progressed).

DeBrincat’s regression (45 points, fourth on team) ranks as one of the Blackhawks’ biggest disappointments, however. Blackhawks fans should still look at his extension as a likely bargain, but this was a tough year. At minimum, expect DeBrincat to enjoy more luck, as his shooting percentage was at a meager 8.7 this season.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
2019-20 season summary

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.

It looks like Blackhawks are sticking with Bowman, Colliton

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Before the 2019-20 NHL season went on pause the Chicago Blackhawks were headed toward their third consecutive non-playoff season and their fifth consecutive season without a playoff series win (with only three playoff game wins during that stretch).

It has been a pretty sudden fall from the top for an organization that was once the gold standard for winning in the salary cap NHL.

They are not only no longer a Stanley Cup contender, they are not even all that close to being a playoff team in what has been a mostly watered down Western Conference the past two years.

Despite the sudden descent into mediocrity, there does not appear to be any significant changes coming to the coaching staff or front office after this season.

In an interview with the Athletic’s Scott Powers, Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said the trio of team president John McDonough, general manager Stan Bowman, and head coach Jeremy Colliton will all be back next season.

From the Athletic:

Wirtz isn’t on the same page as those fans. Asked about his confidence level in the trio, Wirtz replied, “I think they’re all good.”

Does he envision all three returning next season?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Wirtz said. “There’s not going to be any changes in the front office.”

Wirtz reiterated that when he was asked about a rumored Bowman contract extension.

“I’ll let John (McDonough) get into all the details,” Wirtz said of Bowman’s contract. “But there’s not going to be any changes, so let’s put that away.”

The level of confidence there is a little surprising given the current state of the Blackhawks’ organization, especially as it relates to the key people in the front office responsible with building the team.

It was just a little over a year ago that the team parted ways with a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach (Joel Quenneville) after a slow start to the season 2018-19 season. It wasn’t a stretch to think that move would have started the timer on Bowman given that the attention would eventually drift toward the team’s roster management. Especially after the Blackhawks seemed to go all in this offseason on trying to fix their flaws with the hope of squeezing another run out of this remaining core. Obviously, that gamble has not paid off.

While the Blackhawks have to deal with salary cap restrictions that come from paying a pair of superstars big money at the top, that alone isn’t enough of a justification for the drop in success, especially while teams like Washington and Pittsburgh have maintained consistent success with a similar cap structure. The issue still comes back to roster management and some questionable decisions over the years. The Blackhawks tried to get ahead of their salary cap issues over the years but simply made things worse in the short-and long-term.

They needed to dump Bryan Bickell’s contract and did so by attaching Teuvo Teravainen to it and trading him to Carolina for next to nothing. Today, Teravainen is one of the Hurricanes’ best players and would easily be a top player in Chicago.

They feared how much Artemi Panarin would cost on his next contract and dealt him to Columbus to bring back Brandon Saad and some cost certainty. Talent-for-talent, the trade was laughably one-sided and saw them deal a superstar for a good player. Maybe they couldn’t have re-signed him for his current contract and lost him anyway, but how much more competitive would they have been the previous two years with him at forward with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Alex DeBrincat?

Then there were smaller, minor deals this offseason like trading Dominik Kahun and Henri Jokiharju for Olli Maatta and Alex Nylander, and then getting an underwhelming return on Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson at the trade deadline. There are big mistakes. There are a bunch of small mistakes adding up into big mistakes. It all just keeps building up into what the Blackhawks have now.

That is not to say there have not been some successes.

Acquiring Dominik Kubalik has been one of the Blackhawks’ best steals in recent years. DeBrincat has turned out to be an outstanding second-round pick, while recent top picks Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach look like they can be young building blocks going forward. But even with those successes and the promise they bring there are still more questions than solutions throughout the roster. Without dramatic change somewhere, the mediocrity might only continue to build.

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.

Golden Knights looking like a major Stanley Cup threat

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Let’s talk about the Vegas Golden Knights for a bit, because they are starting to emerge as one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference.

They enter Monday’s game in Edmonton in first-place in the Pacific Division and are one of the league’s hottest teams having won 10 of their past 12 games, while also owning a 14-5-2 record since the hiring of new coach Peter DeBoer.

It’s not just the recent results that make them such a threat right now in the West. It’s the fact they are starting to systematically dominate teams. It is the perfect storm of the right results and the right process.

So what’s happening in Vegas that is making them such a threat?

They have tightened things up defensively

Just to make it clear at the start: I was very critical of their decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant earlier this season and replace him with Peter DeBoer. Not because DeBoer isn’t a good coach (He is, as is Gallant), but because the problems in Vegas at the time seemed to be more of a goaltending issue than anything relating to coaching.

But fair is fair to DeBoer, and the Golden Knights have definitely improved their overall performance defensively.

The table below shows some of their 5-on-5 defensive metrics under the two coaches, including shot attempts against, shot attempt differential, expected goals against, goals against, and save percentage.

The goaltending still hasn’t been where they want it to be, and while they were still a top-10 team in some key defensive metrics under Gallant, they have been quite literally the league’s best under DeBoer.

The big change is in dramatic decrease in total shot attempts against, as well as the way they have cut down on the scoring chances and expected goals against. Even though the goaltending performance has remained similar, the defensive play in front of them has definitely improved.

The type of performance we are seeing from the right now is one that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams.

Robin Lehner gives them an intriguing option

Speaking of the goaltending situation, it’s going to be interesting to see how this situation unfolds down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise from the moment he was acquired in the expansion draft, and overall he’s been a rock for them in net. But the fact of the matter is that his overall performance has regressed this season, and outside of a handful of random games in February it hasn’t really consistently improved.

But with Robin Lehner now in the mix the Golden Knights have a very intriguing Plan B in place.

One of their biggest weaknesses the past two years has been the lack of a quality backup behind Fleury. It forced Fleury to take on a huge workload (not great for a goalie in his mid-30s) and had no safety net in case of an injury or poor play.

They not only have a great Plan B, their Plan B also happens to be one of the league’s best goalies the past two years, and he is 3-0 with a .940 save percentage since joining the Golden Knights at the trade deadline.

Forget the star power and reputations, there is no reason why that job should not be up for debate and an open competition down the stretch. If one of them emerges and solidifies that spot, it would take this team to an entirely different level.

Max Pacioretty has been amazing, and Mark Stone will be back

The Golden Knights may not have a true superstar in their lineup, but their top-end talent is legit. Leading the way is Pacioretty (he got a mention in this week’s MVP Power Rankings) who is having one of the best seasons of his career, driving play like a champion and scoring at close to a 40-goal pace.

As a team, they have six forwards scoring at a 20-goal pace over 82 games, while they have also played the past six games (4-2-0 record) without perhaps their best overall forward, Mark Stone.

They should have a very manageable playoff path

This might be one of the biggest things working in their favor.

There are a ton of factors that go into winning in the playoffs, from playing well, to health, to goaltending, to luck, to simply getting the right matchups.

Obviously nothing is a guarantee, but whether the Golden Knights finish first or second in the Pacific Division they should have an extremely manageable path through at least the first two rounds. They would almost certainly be favorites against any team they play in Rounds 1 and 2, while there remains a pretty significant gap between the top contenders in the Western Conference and the next tier of contenders.

Look at it this way: As of publication on Monday afternoon, only one of their potential playoff matchups in Rounds 1 or 2 (Edmonton) of the playoffs ranks higher than 15th in the league in points percentage, while several of their potential early matchups (Calgary, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Arizona, Nashville) are all in the 18-23 range.

It is entirely possible that they would not have to play a top-15 NHL team in the playoffs until a potential Western Conference Final matchup.

They still have to play the games and they still have actually win once they get there, but the way things are shaping up right now with their overall play and potential postseason path the Golden Knights should be one of the top teams to watch for coming out of the Western Conference.

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.

Mark Stone out week-to-week for streaking Golden Knights

Mark Stone out week-to-week for Golden Knights
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The Golden Knights announced that star winger Mark Stone is out week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

With a bit more than a month remaining in the regular season, losing Stone “week-to-week” sounds both scary and vague. Golden Knights Peter DeBoer notes that the team hopes Stone can return before the end of the regular season.

No doubt about it, this is a big loss. Stone generated 21 goals and 63 points so far in 65 games, continuing to draw more deserved attention as a Selke-worthy forward. Even so, you could argue that people still aren’t fully aware of how dominant Stone can be.

This ranks as a significant blow to the Golden Knights, and a frustrating one at that.

It’s been a turbulent season for Vegas, the toughest one in what’s somehow just the third campaign in the franchise’s existence. The Golden Knights are currently red-hot with an eight-game winning streak, seemingly finally putting everything together. And now they lost their two-way star.

Golden Knights hope to hold onto Pacific with Stone out week-to-week

To be clear, the Golden Knights still stand in a good position to win the up-and-down Pacific Division.

Yes, it could be worse, especially if Stone being out week-to-week translates to him still having time to get a few regular-season games in before the playoffs.

There’s also something to be said that the Golden Knights will be forced to find answers beyond Stone. Maybe they’ll stumble into different combinations that could work if matchups get dicey during the playoffs? Perhaps losing a key player will push the Golden Knights to see how much they can lean on Robin Lehner?

Overall, it’s clear this is very bad for the Golden Knights, who have spent big to contend in 2019-20.

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.