x-factor

Will ‘Vegas flu’ continue for Golden Knights’ opponents?

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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 Vegas Golden Knights.

Plenty of sports teams boast rowdy fans and wild atmospheres, but until the Raiders and Jon Gruden’s grimaces give them company, the Vegas Golden Knights can boast an edge that’s truly unique.

Now, sure, people might get so carried away about “The Vegas Flu” that they might exaggerate the advantage, and downplay the fact that the Golden Knights win games because they’re really good, not just out of some notion that their opponents woke up that morning wondering where that tattoo came from.

But you’d be kidding yourself if you argued that there’s no advantage, and a strong home record so far adds credence to the arguments. After going 29-10-2 at home in their inaugural 2017-18 season, the Golden Knights were still pretty tough to beat in their own building, managing 24-12-5 home record despite some bumps in 2019-20 (including a 19-20-2 record away from Las Vegas).

So, an X-factor for the Golden Knights’ 2019-20 season is simple enough: how much of an advantage might home ice be for Vegas once again?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three QuestionsUnder Pressure]

To some extent, you can’t blame coaches for merely washing their hands of various curfew-breaking risks, and just accepting the situation.

As James Neal said as part of NBC’s doc “Knight Fever,” there are certain temptations that come with Sin City, and Connor McDavid points out that those vices may drive you to lose some sleep. Even normally disciplined players might want to let loose, and that must be especially true for Eastern Conference opponents who don’t make it to The Strip all that often during a given season.

Vegas might provide an edge even if you ignore the most obvious elements that might leave players with bags under their eyes. The weather is generally a lot nicer, and like with plenty of Western Conference teams, travel can be a challenge.

Combine those factors with over-the-top “Medieval Times”-inspired entertainment before games, along with – again – this team being quite good, and getting minor line matching advantages when you’re actually on the ice, and it’s really just common sense that the Golden Knights are just that much more formidable at home. It’s probably a relief to the rest of the league that, generally, Vegas only has a small overall advantaged in “rested vs. tired” scenarios (counting both home and away).

Yet, with this being the Golden Knights’ third season in Vegas and NHL existence, opponents might be less vulnerable to various traps.

Most obviously, the novelty factor continues to wear off. Some players might have gotten those Galifianakis nights out of their systems already. Coaches might know what “works” or the closest thing to what works, by now. Gluttons may have tired of various buffets.

Whether the advantage moves the needle or is merely marginal, the Golden Knights should seek out home-ice nonetheless. After all, we’ll never really know the answer to a painful “What if?” question: would Cody Eakin have received that major penalty for the hit that bloodied Joe Pavelski if it happened in Vegas, rather than in front of horrified San Jose Sharks fans?

We’ll find out soon enough if the NHL teams have found their vaccines for “The Vegas Flu.”

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.

Tyson Barrie is big x-factor for Maple Leafs

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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 Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Tyson Barrie trade wasn’t just jaw-dropping and an inventive way to steal Free Agency Day headlines; it was also a catalyst for some fascinating debates about how valuable Barrie really is.

Some of the more intriguing Toronto Maple Leafs X-factors boil down to Barrie: how good is he really, and will Mike Babcock manufacture ways to get the most out of him?

If you’re the type to keep things really simple, you’ll note just how prolific a scorer Barrie has been from the blueline, and think that he’s grossly underrated. Barrie managed 59 points in 78 games last season, and had almost as many (57) despite being limited to 68 regular-season contests in 2017-18. Toronto Maple Leafs fans could be forgiven for drooling while imagining how the speedy defenseman’s numbers might translate to an already talented team.

Yet, for those who delve into deeper numbers, Barrie may actually be overrated, and open up a discussion about whether or not he’s much of a net positive for his team. By just about every shot-counting defensive metric, Barrie can at times be a disaster in his own end.

Really, assessing Barrie may come down to questions of taste and priorities. Barrie might be a right-handed shooting version of Roman Josi: a “roving” defenseman who controls the puck a lot, generates results on offense, but who’s overall positive impact can be questioned when you ponder puck possession stats, along with the conundrum: would his team be better off with a forward having the puck on his stick more than Barrie/Josi?

Like Josi, Barrie has shown positive traits when it comes to the transition game. Barrie’s particularly deft at exiting the defensive zone with puck control, as you can see in this All Three Zones chart (by CJ Turtoro with data from Corey Sznajder):

It’s useful to include a comparison to Jake Gardiner for a number of reasons, as Barrie essentially replaces Gardiner in 2019-20.

Barrie might even be a replacement as a go-to scapegoat, honestly. They’re both very useful defensemen who have their flaws, and those flaws get magnified in a harsh market like Toronto. It wouldn’t be one bit shocking if cameras fixated on Barrie during low moments in the same way they seemed glued to Gardiner after Game 7 gaffes.

Yet it’s their one fundamental difference that makes things especially intriguing, and Barrie an X-factor: Gardiner’s a left-handed defenseman, while Barrie shoots with his right.

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

Toronto was wise to add Jake Muzzin to a defensive group that saw a huge drop-off after Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, but ultimately, Muzzin was also a tad bit redundant, as all three shoot (and crucially, pass) left-handed.

Even if Barrie might end up being a downgrade from Gardiner, this boost in versatility could be big. It also presents Mike Babcock with a chance to prove that he’s worth the megabucks he’s been receiving from the Maple Leafs.

Theoretically, Babcock could use his experience and system to try to get the best out of Barrie. It’s probably a little much to imagine too much of a “teaching” situation for a defenseman who’s 28, but Babcock could optimize the situation with ideal zone starts, a defensive partner who is adept at denying entries to Toronto’s zone, and finding the right balance between Barrie’s aggressiveness and making safer plays.

Frankly, it’s also just as important that Babcock show patience with Barrie, who’s the type of double-edged sword who could drive a coach mad.

With Barrie entering  a contract year, this is most likely to be a short experiment. We’re very much in “win now” territory for Toronto, though, so Babcock needs to get in the lab and use Barrie as a catalyst for a long-awaited breakthrough.

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.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

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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 San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

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

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

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.

Senators GM must manage rebuild — and Melnyk

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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 Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa handing Colin White a six-year, $28.5 million contract was more than just conveniently timed for Senators Day here at PHT. It was also a pivotal moment for a big Senators X-factor: GM Pierre Dorion.

To be more specific, this team’s future hinges on how Dorion manages the Senators’ rebuild … and in what might be an even bigger challenge: managing owner Eugene Melnyk.

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

You don’t have to be an accountant to notice that, at least in the short term, the vast majority of the Senators’ moves have been about saving money. It’s to the point that people are already joking that White will be long gone from Ottawa before his actual salary peaks at $6.25M in 2024-25:

But that really was an eye-opening signing because it shows that Dorion can occasionally convince Melnyk to fork over dough for “core players.”

It will be interesting, then, to see how the rest of that core develops, as there are some other potentially pivotal contracts to sign, and Dorion will eventually need to add pieces, whether that means NHL-ready players through trades and free agency, or additional prospects through the volume of draft picks the team has (painfully) accumulated by trading away the likes of Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene.

Consider Thomas Chabot the next pressing test case. He’s entering the last year of his rookie contract, so will Ottawa get that done briskly, or will that situation linger ominously? There’s nightmare scenarios where another team poaches Chabot with an offer sheet, knowing that Melnyk seems allergic to signing bonuses.

Dorion truly needs Melnyk on board in cases like these, especially since more are on the horizon, notably with Brady Tkachuk‘s entry-level contract expiring after 2020-21.

There are a ton of factors that could sway things as time goes on, from Seattle’s expansion draft to possibly even a new CBA forming as the Senators’ rebuild goes along. Such thoughts might complicate things if Melnyk believes that a new CBA would be kinder to his wallet.

But, even in the shorter term, Dorion could make some interesting moves if he’s creative — and in cases like retaining salary to get trades done, if he can get Melnyk to buy in.

I’ve already argued that the Senators should embrace short-term pain for long-term gains, not unlike the Hurricanes absorbing Patrick Marleau’s buyout to land a first-round pick. That’s not to say Ottawa needs to clone such moves detail by detail; instead, the point is that Dorion should be creative, and also embrace the likely reality that this team is unlikely to be any good this season, so they might as well build for the future.

That’s where the 2019-20 season presents interesting opportunities.

Craig Anderson seems long in the tooth, but he’s surprised us before with seemingly random near-elite years, and what better time for the 38-year-old to pull another rabbit out of a hat than this one, where he’s in the last season of a deal that carries a $4.75M cap hit?

That sounds like a hefty sum today, but it would be manageable for a contender around trade deadline time, where they could “rent” Anderson. Maybe Ottawa would take on a contract a contender doesn’t want (perhaps Anderson to the Calgary Flames in a deal that involves Cam Talbot and Michael Frolik, if Talbot doesn’t work out) for the price of picks and prospects?

Ottawa doesn’t have marquee trade bait like they did with Karlsson, Duchene, and Stone last year, but you can land nice assets for mid-level players, too, from Anderson to someone like Chris Tierney.

There’s only so much Dorion can do about Melnyk’s penny-pinching ways, whether the Senators owner is truly just being “cost-conscious” now only to eventually spend when it’s time to contend, or if that “unparalleled success” talk was merely just talk.

But as we’ve seen with teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, you can build something pretty special even while dealing with budget constraints. You need some creativity from a GM, and an owner who will spend money when it counts.

Is Dorion up to the task? So far, the results have been mixed, but how he handles this situation (now, and in the future) is an enormous X-factor for the Senators.

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 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.