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Will Laviolette bring out best of Predators?

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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 Nashville Predators. 

In the grand scheme of things, I’d rate Peter Laviolette as a very good coach, if not a great one.

Even so, there have been times when the Predators haven’t felt optimized, and that inspires some questions about whether swapping out P.K. Subban for Matt Duchene will take this team to the next level. Here are a few areas where Laviolette’s coaching style and decisions become a big x-factor.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

Integrating the new guy: Nashville has experienced mixed results from David Poile’s many big trades.

Kyle Turris is facing a legit crisis of confidence. Mikael Granlund really didn’t move the needle, Wayne Simmonds barely produced any offense as a rental, and Nick Bonino‘s been a meh addition at best. Blaming Laviolette isn’t totally fair, but he must work to make sure that Duchene is placed in the best possible situation to succeed.

That might require some experimentation.

Would the Predators be better off with Duchene on a top line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, or should Ryan Johansen remain between them? Should they try to find two different duos from those four? Might Duchene be better off as a winger with less offensive responsibility? Laviolette must find the right answers.

Rehabbing: It’s almost as important to get more out of Turris and Granlund.

Can Laviolette convince Turris to put struggles behind him? Don’t underestimate the power of a clean slate … unless Turris is simply done as an effective top-six or even top-nine forward.

Is Granlund better off as a center or wing, and where should he slot in the lineup? Nashville still needs to solve that riddle.

Powering up: The Predators’ power play was absolutely miserable last season, and while the team hired someone new to run the power play, it’s hard not to put some blame on Laviolette, too.

Their excessive reliance on point shots and far-too-defensemen-heavy focus was easy for even a layman to see, so why did Laviolette stand idly by? Did he learn from those issues, and if he didn’t, can his new PP coach Dan Lambert make up the difference?

Perhaps the Duchene – Subban roster swap will fix some of the problems for the Predators, as there should be an organic push to go for what works more (four forwards and one defenseman, forwards taking more shots) than before, when Nashville might have been trying to placate both Subban and Roman Josi. That said, as skilled as Josi is, if he’s still too much of a focal point on the power play, then the results may remain middling. With Subban out of town, Nashville may see a step back at even-strength, too, making better man advantage work that much more crucial.

Handling the goalies: On paper, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros rank as one of the most reliable duos in the almost inherently unreliable goaltending position.

But there are still ways a coach can mess this up. Making the right calls regarding when to play Rinne or Saros – depending upon rest and possible playoff meltdowns – could very well decide a close series, or even a playoff push if things are bumpy at times in 2019-20.

Eeli’s struggling: Eeli Tolvanen is far from the only frustrating prospect, but it feels like the risks are increasing that he’s going to fall into the Jesse Puljujarvi Zone of Prospect Dread. Why not give him a little more room to breathe and see if Tolvanen can keep his head above water enough at five-on-five that his deadly release could be another weapon for Nashville’s offense?

It won’t be easy to ace all of those tests, but Laviolette’s proficiency is a huge X-factor as the Predators hope to compete for a Stanley Cup.

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.

Will poor power play doom Canadiens again?

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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 Montreal Canadiens. 

Despite finishing with 96 standings points – more than the Golden Knights, Stars, and Avalanche out West – the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As much as they might be tempted to grumble about the East being deeper than the West last season, the Canadiens should instead turn that “What if?” discussion inward, and wonder: what if we figured out our power play? The Habs finished the season with a +13 goal differential overall, and their even-strength heartiness becomes even more impressive once you realize that Montreal was -14 when you consider the sum of its special teams.

Fittingly for a team that once saw P.K. Subban as a scapegoat, you can’t blame the PK, either.

Instead, the penalty kill stood out like a sore thumb that was throbbing with pain. Montreal’s 13.2 power-play percentage was the second-worst in the NHL, and they actually scored the fewest PPG overall with just 31.

While it’s dangerous to assume that the Canadiens will remain a possession powerhouse in 2019-20, it’s something Claude Julien frequently manufactures in his teams. If Montreal can stay at least strong in that area, then the power play is a big X-factor: can it at least rise to the level of average, or even good, after being a huge detriment last season?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Questions of personnel

For the most part, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was justified in not being too busy in free agency (although he can be charged with not taking advantage of teams who were capped out and had to get rid of valuable players like Nikita Gusev, Erik Haula, and so on).

It would have been nice if the Canadiens might have gone after a mid-level sniper, though.

Montreal has some strong playmaking talent in the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, but when you look at that roster, you don’t see a ton of finishers. Apologies to Joel Armia, but when he’s a key triggerman for your power play, you’re not exactly going to leave opponents cowering in fear.

What might change

So, it’s important to weigh the lack of improvements against the instinctive assumption that things are almost bound to get better just by natural regression.

And, truly, there are signs that things should at least bump closer to average.

There are telltale signs that Montreal was a little unlucky. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens’ power-play shooting percentage was 10.23, the fourth-lowest in the NHL last season.

Again, the personnel question looms large, as Natural Stat Trick puts Montreal’s expected power play goals at 34, instead of 31, so it’s not like that would be a night-and-day difference if luck leveled out. Simply put, the Canadiens are going to need to improve.

One personnel difference could be more Shea Weber. The defenseman with a bazooka shot only played in 58 games last season, and while it’s risky to demand Weber hit close to 82, he might be healthier in 2019-20.

The thing is, just about every successful power play unit creates the meat of their chances from high-danger areas, whether those come from right in front of the net on dirty rebounds, slick plays starting behind the net, or sweet snipes from “Ovechkin’s office.”

Relying too much on Weber howitzers would be a mistake.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that Weber cannot benefit this unit. It would actually be intriguing if the Canadiens decided to experiment a bit, including maybe having Weber slip into that “Ovechkin office” for the occasional scoring chance. If not Weber, the Habs should probably try to find someone who can bury opportunities at a higher rate, perhaps even prospect Nick Suzuki.

Overall, the Canadiens’ power play is a big X-factor, and it remains to be seen if they can improve from within in 2019-20.

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.

Which Kings can bounce back from last season’s meltdown?

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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 Los Angeles Kings.

While every team hopes a few players can rebound from disappointing seasons, the Kings are hoping to evoke prime, funny hair-era Dennis Rodman by gobbling up plenty of rebounds next season (or to be more sport-appropriate, like peak Espo?).

Let’s consider the biggest X-factor for the Kings: can these players rebound in 2019-20?

Anze Kopitar: In 2017-18, Kopitar was a Hart Trophy finalist, scoring 92 points and being an all-around demon. A year later he, uh, finished 38th in the Lady Byng voting and only managed 60 points.

Maybe the Kings just need to admit that Kopitar is no longer Superman. Yes, he dragged Slovenia to an impressive run in the 2014 Winter Olympics, or was a force during two Stanley Cup victories, but he’s about to turn 32 on Aug. 24. It’s time to start easing his burden, like fellow perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron. Instead, the Kings kept asking for more and more from Kopitar, including having him start 58.6 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2018-19, easily his career-high.

The aging curve is cruel, but the Kings should at least look at ways to dull its sharp edges.

Drew Doughty: Doughty experienced a Kopitar-like trajectory: better-than-ever offensive numbers in 2017-18, then just about everything plummeted in 2018-19.

Personally, I compare Doughty’s struggles to that of P.K. Subban; it’s just difficult to believe that Doughty’s fallen this far from being Norris-caliber. He won’t turn 30 until December, and while Doughty’s (and, to an extent, Kopitar’s) contract is absolutely terrifying over the long haul, I expect a healthy rebound in 2019-20. Also like Kopitar, I don’t expect a rebound to 2017-18 levels, however.

Jonathan Quick: The good news is that Quick has a decent chance of bouncing back from an abysmal .888 save percentage. The bad news is that it’s possible that his improvement might be offset by Jack Campbell (.928) and Calvin Petersen (.924) sinking closer to average.

Most signs point to Quick’s 2018-19 meltdown being an outlier. Then again, Quick does rely heavily on athleticism, so what if that’s slipping at age 33?

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild | Under Pressure

Tyler ToffoliIt’s not perfect, but a shooting percentage far below 10 is usually a sign of a forward who’s had especially bad luck, while something above 20 shows that they were on a hot streak they won’t duplicate.

That thought explains why Toffoli is the easiest rebound to point to, as he should shoot at a much higher rate than last season’s dismal 5.8 percent. Toffoli is also entering a contract year, so motivation shouldn’t be in short supply.

Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk: These two (once?) highly skilled players are tougher to feel optimistic about.

With Carter, it’s simply hard to believe that he’s healthy. Honestly, it’s surprising he suited up for 76 games last season. If his lower-body (full body, really?) issues are behind him, who knows? Still, I can’t help but be troubled by how rarely Carter shot the puck last season.

Then again, Toffoli was the only King with more than 200 SOG last season (226), so this is one of the many cases where it’s tempting to throw out all numbers from that miserable 2018-19 campaign.

Ilya Kovalchuk would probably sign off on the “let’s just forget last year” idea.

It’s tempting to give Kovalchuk a mulligan, as he sometimes found himself a healthy scratch last season as part of the head-scratching Willie Desjardins era. On the other hand, Kovalchuk didn’t score anywhere near enough to justify lousy all-around play, and at 36, he simply might be done.

***

The 2018-19 disaster makes a lot of Kings’ numbers difficult to weigh, and 2019-20 a challenge to predict. Yet, even an optimist would struggle to get too excited about the mess Todd McLellan has been asked to clean up.

Ultimately, rebounds (or a lack thereof) stand as a big X-factor for the Kings.

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.

Avalanche betting big on Cale Makar

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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 Colorado Avalanche.

In jumping from the NCAA straight to high-pressure playoff hockey, Cale Makar looked like a quick study for the Colorado Avalanche. He might need to be one, too.

From a long-term point of view, Colorado’s bold trade of Tyson Barrie makes a lot of sense. Barrie seemed on his way out being that a) he’s entering a contract year, b) Makar could conceivably check many of the same boxes as a skilled, scoring and transition-minded right-handed defenseman, and c) prospects like Bowen Byram and Connor Timmins are on the horizon.

In the short term, one of the Avs’ biggest x-factors boils down to Makar making Colorado look wise in swiftly moving on from Barrie with point B.

[MORE: 3 Questions2018-19 review I Under Pressure]

Much like the Predators counting on Dante Fabbro to absorb a significant chunk of what they’re losing in P.K. Subban, the Avalanche are hoping Makar can be Barrie-like despite a mere 174 minutes of NHL playing time.

That’s not to say that the Avs are being outrageous. After all, playoff play is where flaws get magnified, yet Makar instead had people raving, including teammate Nathan MacKinnon raving during Round 2, as NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika reported on May 3.

“He looks so comfortable,” MacKinnon said. “He’s probably one of our best defensemen already. He controls the play. He’s great defensively. He’s got a good stick and blocks shots and does everything really well. He gaps up really well because of his feet. In the [offensive] zone, he’s always pinching, because he knows he can get back if he gets chipped by. So it’s impressive.”

You could see how impressed the Avalanche were by how they deployed Makar in a featured role right off the bat, with his second playoff game representing an early NHL career-high with 20:06 of ice time. Remarkably, Makar scored a goal in his first playoff appearance, and looked especially deft when paired with Samuel Girard. Makar ended up with six points in those 10 playoff games, a nice mark for virtually any defenseman.

But that’s the rub: Makar’s only played in 10 playoff games, and will make his NHL regular season debut in 2019-20.

That’s simply not a lot of data to work with, as the Avs parted ways with a borderline All-Star-quality defenseman in Barrie. Contract situations and youthful prospects make that smart long-term, but what about the immediate present?

And a lot of it might fall on Makar, at least right away. Mile High Hockey’s Tom Hunter projects an Avalanche 2019-20 defensive lineup that would include Makar on a second pairing, penciling in more development time for Byram and Timmins.

As great as the Avs’ “defense of the future” looks, the present-day group might take a step back, and it could be up to Makar to make sure it’s closer to a stumble than a plummet.

Let’s not forget that, for as impressive as the Avs’ run through the West-topping Flames was, Colorado didn’t make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by a large margin.

This is an excitingly well-run team, yet there are certain metrics that indicate that they might not actually be better than they were last season, at least right away.

There are also some risks involved. What if Nathan MacKinnon and that top line are merely mortal after two superhuman seasons? Could Philipp Grubauer crumble under the burden of being the clear No. 1 goalie?

Count Makar’s development as one of those big x-factors, as his work will factor into knee-jerk reactions about the Barrie trade as much as Nazem Kadri playing well and avoiding suspensions.

I’d personally be shocked if Makar and other Avs blueliners don’t eventually end up being big difference-makers over the long haul, but in 2019-20, things could go either way. On the bright side, Makar should be a blast to watch, even if he goes through some growing pains.

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.

Can Bruins hold off Father Time for another year?

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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 Boston Bruins. 

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: “Father Time is undefeated.”

To the Boston Bruins’ credit, they’ve found ways to zig and zag with the aging curve so far.

Patrice Bergeron is 34, yet aside from being limited to 65 and 64 games during the past two regular seasons, he remains a dominant two-way presence. Zdeno Chara‘s slowing down, but is still averaging more than 21 minutes per night, and often succeeding in making us forget that he’s 42. Instead of getting poor play from an aging goalie duo of 32-year-old Tuukka Rask and 34-year-old Jaroslav Halak, the Bruins’ save percentage stats were comfortably above league average. David Krejci continues to contribute at age 33, and it’s still confounding that Brad Marchand is 31 already.

The Bruins have unearthed some major youthful talent, particularly in David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy, but the bottom line is that this team remains reliant upon an aging core of talents whose productivity could plummet.

[MORE BRUINS: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three questions]

We’ve certainly seen this before with other teams who’ve had long runs as contenders.

The Los Angeles Kings’ decline wasn’t gradual — it was staggering. Their pals in Anaheim could see the same drop in their team play, or just observe the jarring downfall of Corey Perry, which ended with a buyout.

Maybe the Bruins thrive where those teams fight to survive because of style differences, such as Bergeron’s cerebral game. Or maybe the Bruins have just been lucky.

Whatever the explanation may be, the Bruins have sustained a window of true, elite contention for longer than expected, as it sure seemed like that window was closing during the end of Claude Julien’s run.

But what if Father Time shows up to collect those debts in 2019-20?

A deep, draining run within one win of a Stanley Cup probably didn’t make the Bruins feel younger. Boston battled through 24 playoff games during that run, including two Game 7s. As much as a “Stanley Cup hangover” narrative focuses on motivation (and recovering from literal hangovers), the holdover fatigue can’t be ignored. Being on the losing end might be the greatest testament to such a thought, as players like Chara and Rask might feel some lingering effects from battling through June 12.

So, the Bruins probably can’t totally avoid absorbing body blows from fatigue and the aging process, yet they’d be wise to mitigate the damage.

  • Having aging veterans take one game of a back-to-back set off seems prudent.
  • Rask has already said how much it helped to have Halak carry some of the workload, so more of that?
  • Easing burdens even while players are on the ice is worthwhile. Not only do you make things less grueling for Bergeron/Chara/etc., but you might get some useful intel. Perhaps you can break up Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak during certain series where you’d be better off spreading the wealth? Getting a better idea of who works well with those stars could boost Boston’s versatility.

On paper, this could all run smoothly, but we’ll see when this team actually hits the ice again. After all, Father Time isn’t always polite enough to knock before barging in and messing everything up.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.