Vladimir Tarasenko

Getty

Wednesday Night Hockey: Blues finding ways to overcome key injuries

1 Comment
NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Stanley Cup hangover can be a real thing. It’s come back to bite several defending champions over the years. The St. Louis Blues had every reason to fall apart early on this season for a number of reasons, but to their credit they’ve been able to stand at the top of the Central Division.

Before we jump into the Blues, we have to point out that their opponent tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have also been decimated by injuries lately. They’re currently without Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz and Nick Bjugstad.

But St. Louis is missing some firepower of their own, too.

Sniper Vladimir Tarasenko has been out of the lineup since Oct. 26. He underwent shoulder surgery and he’ll be re-evaluated sometime in March. The 27-year-old had 10 points in 10 games when he came out of the lineup.

“History has shown to me, losing Vladi, it’s a big loss to a team, but you can overcome these ones — you hope to be able to overcome it,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “(But) it’s the next one and the one after that is where everything starts to get really tested.”

In their first game without Tarasenko, they dropped a 3-0 decision to the Boston Bruins in a Stanley Cup rematch. Since then, they’ve found a way to go 13-2-3, which is very impressive.

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

Like Armstrong mentioned, good teams can absorb one big loss, but it’s the other injuries that really test your squads depth. The Blues have also been without Alexander Steen (12 games), Sammy Blais (nine games), Robert Thomas (five games) and Oskar Sundqvist (three games). How they continue to get the job done is pretty amazing.

“Our organization (has) done a great job of finding players that can come up and do the job up here,” head coach Craig Berube explained. “We’ve got a deep farm team, and whether it’s from drafting and free-agent signings, like (Nathan) Walker and (Derrick) Pouliot, they came up and filled in real nice.”

Having depth in the minors is nice, but there’s no way they’d be able to overcome these injuries without added contributions from their top players. The defending champs have received some solid production from David Perron, who leads them in scoring with 28 points in 29 games. Ryan O'Reilly has just one goal in his last 11 games, but he’s found a way to chip in with 26 points in 29 outings. And Brayden Schenn (team-high 14 goals), Jaden Schwartz (22 points) and Alex Pietrangelo (20 points) have all done their part. Even a depth player like Ivan Barbashev has done his part by picking up six points in his last four games.

The other big reason they’ve been able to fight through all this adversity is because of the solid goaltending their receiving, and it’s not just Jordan Binnington. Yes, Binnington has been terrific this year, as he’s posted a 13-4-4 record with a 2.26 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage. He’s showing that last year’s run was no fluke.

Backup netminder Jake Allen has also done his part. Allen and Binnington have split starts with an even rotation over the last few weeks. The veteran owns a 5-1-2 record with a 2.35 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage this season. That only regulation loss came at home against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 19. He allowed a horrendous goal to Habs forward Brendan Gallagher in that one, but he’s found a way to bounce back since then.

The Blues will hit a rough patch at some point, but there’s no reason to believe they’ll fall apart completely because they’re showing they have the talent and mental ability to face adversity head on.

They’ll probably be really sad to see the 2019 calendar year end in a few weeks though. It’s been a really good year for them.

Liam McHugh will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Blues-Penguins from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Stunning numbers on Flyers, Penguins, Coyotes, and more

Getty
Leave a comment

During the 2019-20 NHL season we will take an occasional look at some stunning numbers from around the league. Here is what stood out to us through the first two months of the season. 

The Flyers’ best start since … Eric Lindros played?! This, to me, is literally stunning. The Philadelphia Flyers started December with 35 points, which is their highest point total at the start of the month since the 1995-96 season. That stat comes via NBC Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall. Not sure if this says more about the Flyers’ 2019-20 performance, or the Flyers’ performance between 1996 and 2019.

McDavid and Draisaitl’s dominance. It would not be a stunning numbers update if we did not look at the performance of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl out in Edmonton because everything about these two is completely stunning. They are both at the 50-point mark entering play on Tuesday and are No’s. 1 and 2 in the scoring race. No other players in the league have more than 43 points so far this season. The only other Oilers players in franchise history to hit 50 points through December 1 are Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. No other player on the current Oilers team has more than 19 points this season. These two are the offense.

The Penguins’ absurd injury run. With Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bjugstad all currently sidelined, the Penguins have more than $25 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box. That represents more than 30 percent of their total salary cap number. Since the start of the season the Penguins have lost 85 man games (and counting) to injuries to Crosby, Rust, Dumoulin, Schultz, Bjugstad, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alex Galchenyuk, Patric Hornqvist, and Jared McCann. It is incredible they are still in a playoff position and played as well as they have.

Quick’s continued decline: The Kings were hoping that Jonathan Quick could bounce back from his brutal 2018-19 performance, but he has been just as bad this season. Since the start of last season he has managed only an .888 save percentage. Among goalies with at least 45 starts during that stretch, that is the worst mark in the league. San Jose’s Martin Jones is the only other goalie with sub-.900 save percentage.

Darcy Kuemper is Arizona’s MVP: In February, 2018, the Arizona Coyotes traded Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood to the Los Angeles Kings for backup goalie Darcy Kuemper. It was a trade that probably snuck under your radar. It is also a trade that might get the 2019-20 Coyotes back in the playoffs. Since arriving in Arizona Kuemper has been one of the league’s most productive goalies, owning a .924 all situations save percentage. Of the 55 goalies that have logged at least 2,000 minutes of ice-time since then, that number places Kuemper sixth in the entire league. His goalie partner in Arizona, Antti Raanta, is fifth (Kuemper has played more nearly 5,000 minutes, while injuries have limited Raanta to just a little over 2,000 minutes). They are one of the best goalie duos in the league, right up there with Boston (Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak), Dallas (Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin), and New York (Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov).

Cale Makar is better than advertised. The Colorado Avalanche top forwards are incredible, and when the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog is healthy and together they are borderline unstoppable. But what is really exciting about the Avalanche and the biggest reason they have emerged as one of the rising NHL powers is the development of their young defense, specifically Cale Makar. He is averaging a point-per-game so far this season (26 points, 26 games) and is off to one of the best starts ever for a rookie defensemen. Since 1979-80 the only defender with more points through his team’s first 26 games was Larry Murphy, who had 29 points in 26 games for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. Combined with Sam Girard and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram the Avalanche have a trio of young defenders that will shape their blue line for a decade or more.

Blues keep rolling. No Vladimir Tarasenko, no problem for the Blues. Since their top forward and most impactful player was sidelined with an injury, the Blues have managed to go on a 13-3-3 run. Leading the way for the Blues offense is David Perron, who is off to one of the best starts of his career with 28 points in 29 games, including five game-winning goals.

Red Wings’ struggles. The Detroit Red Wings have a minus-56 goal differential entering play on Tuesday. The next worst team (New Jersey Devils) is only at minus-31. That goal differential through 30 games is the 23rd worst in the history of the league and the worst since the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Taylor Hall

Leave a comment

Taylor Hall‘s contract situation with the New Jersey Devils was always going to be a big storyline this season, and with the team off to a disappointing start and the possibility of him re-signing looking slimmer by the day it was only a matter of time until trade talk picked up.

Over the weekend The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that teams around the league are calling the Devils regarding their top player, and general manager Ray Shero is starting to listen.

With that in mind, this week’s PHT Power Rankings takes a look at the best possible landing spots for the former league MVP.

Which teams make the most sense?

To the rankings!

1. New Jersey Devils. Honestly the ideal situation is Hall staying right where he is in New Jersey with one big if — If he is willing to re-sign there. I am just looking at this from a Devils perspective because trading Hall would be a pretty significant blow to what general manager Ray Shero has tried to build here. It is nearly impossible to get fair value for players of this caliber in trade, they have the salary cap space to make a new contract work, and even though he is no longer considered “young” by NHL standards, he is still at an age where he can absolutely be a part of a contending team in New Jersey around Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Will it work out that way? It is looking less and less likely with each passing day. But you have to keep trying!

Having to trade him after getting just one playoff appearance out of his four years with the team would just seem like a waste and missed opportunity.

So what are the best options assuming they have to trade him?

2. Colorado Avalanche. The worst nightmare for the rest of the Western Conference, and something that is absolutely possible given their situation. The Avalanche roster is already loaded with top-line talent, they have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the league, they have young assets to deal, and they are in a position to win right now. Could you imagine Hall on a team that already has Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri, and Cale Makar? They would go from Stanley Cup contender to Stanley Cup favorite.

3. Montreal Canadiens. They have been hoarding salary cap space and desperately trying to find an impact forward, going as far as to actually signing a restricted free agent offer sheet (Sebastian Aho) over the summer. They need a star, they need an impact forward, they need something to try and break the cycle of mediocrity the Marc Bergevin era has produced.

4. St. Louis Blues. The salary cap is a real obstacle here, but smart teams can find ways to make that work to get the player they want (or need). The Blues look like a Stanley Cup favorite again, but with Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for most of the season they have a huge hole on the wing. It is a long shot, but it works from a hockey standpoint.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins could definitely use another winger with some finish, and let’s be honest here, finding a way to trade for an impact player like Hall is exactly the type of blockbuster move the Penguins are known for going after as they try to maximize the best years of the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang core. Salary cap space is tight, but it only seems to be a matter of when Jim Rutherford dumps Alex Galchenyuk and/or Nick Bjugstad (once he returns from injury) to clear more space.

6. New York Islanders. They have the goaltending, they are shutting teams down defensively, and they are showing their 2018-19 performance was no fluke. They just need one more impact player up front to bring the whole thing together.

7. Edmonton Oilers. After wasting the first part of Hall’s career then trading him for pennies on the dollar, there has been speculation that they could be interested in a reunion with their former No. 1 overall pick. On one hand it would also give us an opportunity to see the Connor McDavid-Hall combination that we never really had a chance to see. On the other hand, they already had their chance with Hall and blew it.

8. Calgary Flames. After finishing the 2018-19 season with the best record in the Western Conference the Flames have badly regressed this season and have been one of the league’s worst offensive teams. It would also add a fascinating twist and storyline to the Battle of Alberta.

9. Nashville Predators. This entire team is built on big trades and free agent acquisitions, so you know general manager David Poile is not afraid to do something like this. They are not a bad offensive team at this point so it is not like Hall would be addressing a huge need, but the team does look stale and in need of a spark. Their window should not be closing, and with no truly dominant team in the Western Conference they should still have a chance to do something this season.

10. Boston Bruins. They would have to get extremely creative with the salary cap and convince New Jersey to eat some salary, but the Bruins have a window to win right now and need some offense beyond the David PastrnakBrad Marchand duo.

11. Carolina Hurricanes. Not sure how realistic it is given the salary cap, but I am including them just because I think it would be a fun match. They have a ton of draft picks at their disposal to use as trade chips, they are obviously a contender, and adding another impact player like Hall to an already underrated group of forwards would make them a fierce team to defend.

12. San Jose Sharks. It makes no sense, but would it really surprise you if it happened? Or if they tried for it? They have very limited salary cap space, no first-round draft pick this year, and their biggest need is still a goalie. All of that makes it tough to consider them an option. But they are desperate to win a Stanley Cup for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Erik Karlsson, and with the goalie trade market being slim maybe they just try and outscore their hole in net.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Examining the options for Kings, Kovalchuk

6 Comments

It seems that Ilya Kovalchuk‘s time with the Los Angeles Kings is going to be coming to an end one way or another in the not too distant future.

The team made him a healthy scratch on Tuesday night, and he will reportedly be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future as the team looks to get younger, shed salary, and finally begin turning the page over to a new chapter in a long overdue and much needed rebuild. The biggest question that remains with Kovalchuk is what, exactly, they are able to do with him.

Because of Kovalchuk’s contract the Kings options seem to be severely limited.

The key points regarding his contract…

  • He has one year remaining on it after this season at a salary cap hit of $6.25 million.
  • He is due a signing bonus in December worth $5.3 million, meaning any team that traded for him after that date would only be on the hook financially for a prorated salary of $700,000 for the rest of this season.
  • Because the contract is a 35-plus contract the Kings would still be on the hook for the entirety of his remaining salary cap hit if they were to buy him out or release him. And they would only be able to release him if Kovalchuk agrees to walk away from the remaining money he is owed, which seems unlikely.
  • His contract also contains a no-move clause and a modified no-trade clause, which could limit where he ends up in a trade.

Not an ideal situation to be in for the Kings.

The most logical option might be waiting until after his bonus is paid next month and digging back into the trade market when a team won’t have to commit as much financially. The issue, though, is still the fact that Kovalchuk is 36 years old, still has one year left after this one, and just hasn’t really been any kind of an impact player since returning to the NHL. He has scored at a 20-goal pace with the Kings, so there is still some offensive production there. Even with that he has clearly been a miserable fit in Los Angeles for where the team is and where it is looking to go in the future.

Are there any teams that would have an interest in taking that on? Look at it this way, if the Edmonton Oilers can move Milan Lucic‘s contract, there is absolutely a chance for the Kings to move this one.

Let’s speculate a bit on some potential landing spots.

New York Islanders. Before you completely dismiss this and yell about how he would never fit within their system or be good enough defensively to play for Barry Trotz, stop and think for a minute about who their general manager is. Lou Lamoriello is the one that went all-in on signing him to that original massive contract years ago with the New Jersey Devils, while there were also rumblings the team was interested in signing him when he returned to the league last summer. For as good as the Islanders have been they could still use another goal-scorer, there is history between the player and GM, and they have the salary cap space to take on that cap hit. It could be an interesting lottery ticket for a team that is still probably a piece or two away from really being able to make some serious noise in the playoffs. There are worse potential landing spots.

Columbus Blue Jackets. Another team with salary cap space that is in desperate need of offense. Even after their offseason  free agency exodus and slow start through the first month, the Blue Jackets do not seem ready to throw in the towel on this season. The problem: their offense has been completely non-existent to this point. Their goals per game average is the second lowest in the league, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings.

San Jose Sharks. The salary cap would make it complicated so there would have to probably be some maneuvering done to make it work, but the Sharks are already trying to win with a bunch of superstars from 2008 so why not add one more to the mix?

St. Louis Blues. Not sure how they would make this work with the salary cap, especially next season, so it is probably a really long shot in the dark, but with Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for the next five months they could really use another goal-scorer.

Carolina Hurricanes. Now here is an intriguing option. If the Kings are going to trade Kovalchuk one of the options might include them throwing in a valuable asset (draft pick, prospect, young player) as a sweetener to convince another team to take such an ugly contract. Do you know what team has had a lot of success in making those kind of moves over the years? These folks. It’s how they ended up with Teuvo Teravainen, as well as an additional 2020 first-round pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs for absorbing Patrick Marleau‘s contract. Would it really be a shock if they picked up the phone, gave the Kings a call, and said, “hey, we hear you have a contract you don’t want. Let’s talk about that…” This is right in their wheelhouse.

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.

 

How Blues have kept winning without Tarasenko

2 Comments

When we last checked in with the St. Louis Blues a few weeks ago the defending champs were off to a sluggishly inconsistent start and then got the one piece of news they absolutely did not need — Vladimir Tarasenko, their most impactful player and biggest star, was going to be sidelined for the next five months. It was a disappointing start to their title defense, and it seemed like it could have at least had the potential to put them in another early hole in the Western Conference they would have to dig out of.

Instead, the opposite has happened. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes riding a seven-game winning streak and have climbed back to the top of the West standings, owning what is by far the best points percentage (.750) in the conference.

Considering the injury situation it is an impressive run and quick turnaround. How have they managed to stay so hot, and can they keep it rolling? It is a nice run of success, but there are definitely some red flags that come along with it.

The power play and overtime domination has carried the offense

Two things stand out about the Blues’ current winning streak. The first is that five of those wins have come in overtime, with two of those overtime goals being scored on power play opportunities.

Somewhat related to that is the fact the power play itself is clicking at a 29.6% rate over the past eight games, the second best success rate in the NHL during that stretch. All of that is making up for the fact that the Blues have scored just 12 goals during 5-on-5 play and have one of the worst scoring rates in the league at even-strength (more on this below).

This should be a concern because you can only rely on your power play to carry you for so long, and you’re not always going to get that sort of opportunity in overtime. Overtime itself can be a huge coin flip due to the unpredictable nature of the 3-on-3 situation. Sometimes you will get the bear, and sometimes the bear will get you (this five-game OT winning streak came after losing three OT/SO games in a row earlier in the year).

Jordan Binnington has gone on a roll

This is probably the biggest part of the Blues’ recent run. Binnington has won each of his past five starts and has a .930 save percentage in the six games since Tarasenko went out of the lineup. He was one of the players off to a slow start at the beginning of the year and his recent turnaround has resulted in him putting the team on his back and carrying it.

(We should also acknowledge that Jake Allen has also contributed, winning two games during the winning streak with a very respectable .914 save percentage).

Binnington’s play has been so important because the Blues are not controlling shot attempts and scoring chances like they did a year ago. Even during this recent winning streak (since Oct. 25) the Blues are among the worst teams in total shot attempt differential (28th), scoring chance differential (28th), high-danger scoring chance differential (30th), and expected goal differential (30th). It is a small sampling, yes, but it is also a dramatic fall from where they were a year ago after the coaching change when they were one of the best teams in all of those categories. (All via Natural Stat Trick)

Something to keep in mind: Even though their defensive play isn’t quite as good as it was in the second half and in the playoffs, a lot of their struggles in these differentials have to do with what they are not creating offensively as opposed to what they are giving up. Across the board they have been the worst 5-on-5 team in the league when it comes to generating shots, chances, high-danger chances, and yes, even goals. This is an example of where they are really missing an impact player like Tarasenko, and it really puts a ton of pressure on the goalies to have no margin for error because one or two goals could be too much to overcome.

The results are good, the process is concerning

This is really what it comes down to.

The Blues are winning games right now, yes, but the process behind those wins is concerning when it comes to their long-term outlook. These points they have collected over the past two weeks are important, and they have definitely built themselves a nice cushion in the playoff race, but if they keep playing this way the wins may not be as frequent as they currently are.

At times last year the Blues looked like a team that was doing everything right with the way it played and just needed to fix its goaltending  to get on the right track. They do not have that same feel right now.

If they want to keep getting the same results this year something is going to have to change in their process to generate more offense at even-strength, and that might require a trade to help replace what they are missing with Tarasenko.

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.