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PHT’s 2019-20 predictions: NHL Awards, free agent busts, overhyped teams

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The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here (Wed. at 6:30 pm on NBCSN) and what better way to kick off the new hockey than with some predictions. Today we’ll look at the various awards and some topics such as overhyped team, first coach fired, whether Nikita Kucherov or the Tampa Bay Lightning will record a higher point total, and more.

Pre-season predictions are fun to read to get a sense of what people are thinking as we head into a new season. There was plenty of change around the league on the ice, behind the bench, and in the executive offices. Lots of teams have reason for hope, while the expectations of others aren’t very lofty, but they’re just hoping to take some positive steps.

Who will take home the hardware in June and what teams and players will be notable this season? Here’s what the PHT staff is thinking at the moment.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

HART: Nathan MacKinnon (Sean, James, Joey, Adam)
ART ROSS: Connor McDavid (Sean, Adam), Nathan MacKinnon (James), Nikita Kucherov (Joey)
ROCKET RICHARD: Alex Ovechkin (Sean, James, Adam), John Tavares (Joey)
VEZINA: John Gibson (Sean), Andrei Vasilevskiy (James, Joey), Ben Bishop (Adam)
NORRIS: Seth Jones (Sean), Erik Karlsson (James), Victor Hedman (Joey, Adam)
CALDER: Kaapo Kakko (Sean, James, Adam), Jack Hughes (Joey)
SELKE: Aleksander Barkov (Sean), Mark Stone (James), Ryan O’Reilly (Joey), Brayden Point (Adam)

OVERHYPED TEAM

SEAN: An NHL-worst power play was (hopefully) improved by the Matt Duchene addition, but while the Predators will once again be their solid selves, did David Poile do enough to overcome the trending upward Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche in a very tough Central Division? The bottom six could help out a bit more, and they need to find the old Kyle Turris at some point.

JAMES: The Coyotes are spending like a team with legitimate aspirations, but I just don’t see enough dynamic talent to break through.

JOEY: Boston Bruins. Everyone has them locked into the top three spots in the Atlantic, but they’re coming into the year a little banged up. They’re also coming off a long playoff run.

ADAM: Going to go with Nashville. They are still really good, but I don’t think Matt Duchene solves all that much for them and even though their defense is still really good I think they are going to miss P.K. Subban.

UNDERRATED TEAM

SEAN: Staying in the Central, the Avs are rightly garnering a lot of hype, but let’s not sleep on the Stars. Once they figured out Jim Montgomery’s system in the second half, they surged. Add in Joe Pavelski and a lottery ticket in Corey Perry, along with the up-and-coming Roope Hintz, future Norris winner Miro Heiskanen, and old standards Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and Jamie Benn, and you’ve got a real dangerous team this season. If Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin can repeat their success from last season in goal, watch out for the Stars.

JAMES: The Penguins keep shrinking their margin of error with some head-scratching moves. Even so, they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and a few other valuable players, so reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

JOEY: Carolina went to the conference final, but I’m not sure they’re getting the respect they deserve. I think they can finish second in the division.

ADAM: Columbus is going to be better than people think. They still have a lot of really good players coming back, and I think Pierre-Luc Dubois has a massive breakout year this season.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

SEAN: Four seasons with double-digit goals, at least 40 points in each of his five NHL seasons, and consistently in the positive when it comes to possession, Klingberg needs to get more due around the league. With Heiskanen and Esa Lindell on the blue line, the Stars’ top defenseman are among the best in the league.

JAMES: Alex Pietrangelo gets mentioned as an underrated player quite often, yet I think Colton Parayko might be even more overlooked. Parayko is a beast AND an absolute unit, to use fancy scientific jargon.

JOEY: Jonathan Huberdeau put together one of the quietest 90-plus point seasons I can remember. I think he’ll have another big year in Florida.

ADAM: John Klingberg shouldn’t be underrated, but I feel like he is. The development of Miro Heiskanen kind of stole a lot of the spotlight in Dallas last year but Klingberg is still the player that runs that defense, and he is outstanding.

FIRST COACH FIRED

SEAN: Boudreau seems inevitable, right? It’s looking like another long year in the State of Hockey and with a new GM in town, he might want to install his own hire, even with Bruce’s history of success in the league.

JAMES: Bruce Boudreau. Bill Guerin didn’t hire him, and the Wild insist on contending with a so-so roster, setting the stage for Bruce’s face to turn the color of a pink slip.

JOEY: Jeff Blashill. The Red Wings aren’t expected to make the playoffs, but I think they get off to an ugly start.

ADAM: I think it Paul Maurice’s time is going to run out in Winnipeg. That team faded last year and looks like it is setting up for a really tough season given the RFA drama and the state of their defense. He has been there long enough that a slow start could be it for him.

FREE AGENT BUST

SEAN: Stralman’s offense has steadily declined since 2014-15, his first year in Tampa, and now at 33 he’s on the back nine of his career. That makes it all the more odd that Dale Tallon decided to give him a three-year deal in the summer, especially coming back from a lower-body injury that caused him to miss most of last season.

JAMES: Tyler Myers is closer to a third-pairing defenseman than a $6M one.

JOEY: Tyler Myers in Vancouver. When it’s all said and done, that’s going to be a pretty nasty contract. He’s a good depth defenseman, but not someone you commit big dollars to.

ADAM: Have to go with Tyler Myers. Just do not see the plan in Vancouver and the amount of money they spent on him.

MORE:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
• 2019 NHL free agency tracker
NHL on NBC television schedule

Blue Jackets can be much better people think

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The 2019-20 NHL regular season has not even started and already the Columbus Blue Jackets are being almost completely written off.

This is a development they are very well aware of, and one they are not responding kindly to.

Coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about it. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen thinks it’s a slap in the face to the core of the team. Cam Atkinson is ready to prove everybody wrong.

The doubters are not without their reasons, and for much of the offseason I was right there with them. How could you not be?

The Blue Jackets were the last team to get in the Eastern Conference playoff field last spring and were hit harder by free agency than any other team in the league, losing franchise players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, as well as trade deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. That is a ton of talent and production to walk out the door, and with Gustav Nyquist (a very good player!) being the only significant outside addition to the team, it’s easy to have lowered expectations.

But Kekalainen made a fairly strong point in support of his core earlier this month when he said this to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline:

“I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said, “because it shows disrespect to our core group that’s brought us all the success we’ve had in the last three years.

“(Three) teams have more regular-season wins than we do (142) in the last three years, and we had 108 points the season before (Artemi) Panarin arrived here. I’m a little bit upset about all that, and I’m getting fed up talking about it.”

Obviously a general manager is going to go to bat for their team and believe in the roster at the start of the season. But he’s also not wrong here. Only Tampa, Washington, and Boston have more regular season wins than the Blue Jackets since start of the 2016-17 season, and only two of the players that left this offseason (Panarin and Bobrovsky) played a significant role in compiling that record. Out of those two, one of them (Panarin) was not even there in the year they won the most games and compiled the most points during that stretch.

But let’s focus on replacing those two since they are the most important.

The wrench in all of this is that Bobrovsky was there for all three seasons and was probably the most important part of that success, especially during the 2016-17 season (the pre-Panarin year) when he won his second Vezina Trophy. That is a difficult thing to replace, and the Blue Jackets are going to open the year relying on two completely unproven starters in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Obviously their success or failure as NHL goalies will play a massive role in what the Blue Jackets can do this season. But I’m not ready to totally eliminate the possibility of Merzlikins being good.

The thing is, they don’t need to totally replace Bobrovsky for the Blue Jackets to have a chance. They just need to be decent. The Blue Jackets were one of the better defensive teams in the league last season and were among the top-seven in suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing, and when paired together can help lock down a significant chunk of every game.

That will help any goalie. As long as the Blue Jackets can maintain that defensively they won’t need a superhero in net.

And while the departure of Panarin, and to a lesser extent Duchene, leaves a big hole at forward the cupboard is not completely bare. Nyquist won’t replace Panarin’s offense or game-breaking ability, but he is a legitimate top-six forward. Atkinson has been a top-10 goal-scorer for about four years, and they have an exciting prospect in Alexandre Texier ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Then there is third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois, an already dominant two-way player that seems to be on the verge of a breakout season (read about that here).

It’s not that Blue Jackets won’t miss the players that are leaving — they obviously will — but they still have enough high-end talent (and capable depth) that the season isn’t going to be a lost cause before it even begins. A lot will depend on the goalies, but they have enough around them to support them and keep them competitive.

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.

Werenski’s contract, goaltending are top questions for Blue Jackets

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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 Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets.

1. What will Zach Werenski‘s contract look like, and when will it get signed?

This is currently the most pressing issue for the Blue Jackets.

Werenski is one of the team’s core players, helps form one of the league’s best defense duos alongside Seth Jones, and has had an outstanding start to his NHL career with his best years still in front of him.

Based on his current level of production he should be in line for a huge contract (maybe something in the seven-or eight-year, and $8 million per year range?) and the Blue Jackets certainly have the salary cap space to accommodate it. It is just a matter of when it actually gets signed and how much it’s for.

Like all of the remaining unsigned RFA’s (and there are a lot of significant ones) it is probably going to be a lengthy waiting game while everyone waits for the first shoe to drop around the league.

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Who is going to emerge as the starting goalie?

This is the position that is going to make-or-break the Blue Jackets’ season.

Sergei Bobrovsky may have had some issues in the playoffs, but he was also a major reason why the team managed to reach them in four of his six full seasons as the starting goalie.

Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Columbus and one of the best, most productive goalies in the league during his tenure. That is not an easy thing to replace, and right now the Blue Jackets have no proven goalie on the roster.

The in-house candidates are Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and it remains to be seen whether either one is capable of being a No. 1 starter in the NHL. Korpisalo has a sub-.900 save percentage over the past three seasons as a backup, while Merzlikins is 25 years old and has never played a game in North America. He is an intriguing option, but is a complete unknown at this point. If neither one is capable of stepping up to take control of the job it will be a major problem for the Blue Jackets that will become general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s top priority to fix.

3. How will they replace the offense they lost this summer?

Pretty much everyone in hockey was anticipating a free agency exodus out of Columbus this summer with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Bobrovsky all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of offense walking out the door, especially as it relates to Panarin who has been one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players and was the one true game-changing forward the team had.

That is obviously a lot to replace, but it doesn’t end there as there are another set of questions that arise with the players that are returning.

Among them: What if Cam Atkinson isn’t a 40-goal scorer again? What if Oliver Bjorkstrand, after scoring 23 goals, regresses? Will Pierre-Luc Dubois take another big step in his development? All of that can add up and only add to what the Blue Jackets need to replace 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.

Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

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.

Trouba, Jets millions apart as arbitration date nears

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With less than 48 hours to go before his arbitration date, Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets are reportedly millions apart in valuation for the top-pairing defenseman.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Wednesday that Trouba is looking for $7 million per season while the Jets, at the moment, are sitting at the $4-million mark instead.

This isn’t unusual for a team to be low-balling ahead of an arbitration case while a player shoots for the moon — it’s an oft-used strategy.

Trouba’s underlying numbers suggest he’s among the league’s best rearguards, but when it comes to goals and assists, he doesn’t show as well. And with Trouba, there’s always the question about his durability, having completed 81 games just once in his career and never playing more than 65 in a season in his four other seasons in the NHL.

Arbitration is no fun for either side, where the dirty laundry is aired and teams tell players why they don’t deserve the money they think they do. But it appears increasingly likely that Trouba’s July 20 date will come to fruition in what would be a first for the Winnipeg Jets and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff since the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

The Jets also have forward Adam Lowry (July 22), Brandon Tanev (July 25) and Marko Dano (July 30) with scheduled arbitration hearings. Last week, the Jets handed Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck a six-year, $37 million contract, avoiding a potential arbitration hearing with him as well.

Looking at the comparables likely doesn’t favor Trouba and his current valuation of himself.

Take for instance Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s in the third year of a six-year deal that sees him pocketing $5.4 million per season.

Jones had 57 points last year, including a career-high 16 goals.

Trouba finished the season with three goals and 24 points and has eclipsed 30 just once (33) in his five-year career.

Colton Parayko also comes to mind.

The St. Louis Blues d-man signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal last summer after a 35-point season and put up the same total in 2017-18.

Another deal that can be used as a comparison is Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Josi signed a seven-year, $28 million deal prior to the 2013-14 season.

In the two years before signing the deal, Josi’s numbers were comparable to Trouba’s and Josi is now likely going to get a significant pay raise after hovering around the 50-point mark for the past four seasons.

The end game, at least this season, likely results in a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $5 to $5.5 million for Trouba. The Jets have the option to give Trouba two years, but he would become an unrestricted free agent following the 2019-20 season, so a one-year deal makes sense for the Jets and will put both sides in the same scenario next season if a long-term deal isn’t hashed out before then.

Both sides have said they’d like to commit to one another long-term. The Jets would like to see Trouba’s production go up, and if he can hit the 45-50-point window this season, there’s a good chance there wouldn’t be a second arbitration case but rather a long-term deal to stick in Winnipeg.

Trouba has been given everything he wanted after initially wanting out of Winnipeg two years ago. He’s on a contender playing on one of the league’s best shutdown tandems and commanding big minutes every night.

If he wants to get paid like an elite defenseman, he needs to score like one and will have every opportunity to earn the raise next summer, assuming the Jets hand him a one-year deal after their arbitration hearing on Friday.


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