Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The star-studded UFA class of 2019 aren't signing extensions. That's rare, and history suggests it's bad news for their teams.

One​ of the biggest​ stories​ of​ the​ NHL​ season​ is what’s​ happening with the​ star-studded free agent​ class​ of 2019. And​​ what’s happening is: not much.

That’s a big deal. Every summer, we look ahead to the following year’s potential free agents and get excited over all the big names. And every year, almost all of those big names end up signing extensions long before they get anywhere near free agency. By the time July 1 rolls around, there’s rarely much star power left.

But so far, that hasn’t happened for most of the class of 2019. A few big names have signed, including Max Pacioretty, Pekka Rinne, Blake Wheeler and Ryan Ellis. But that’s left several top stars who still need extensions, and who are now less than seven months away from hitting unrestricted free agency.

We can start with Erik Karlsson in San Jose, who could end up being one of the offseason’s biggest stories for the second straight year. The Blue Jackets have both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner is having a career year. And the Senators have both Matt Duchene and Mark Stone.

Those six players would all figure to hit the jackpot if they made it to the open market. But the list goes on, with names like Wayne Simmonds, Jake Gardiner, Joe Pavelski, Jordan Eberle and Cam Talbot all on expiring deals. And then there’s Anders Lee and Eric Staal and Tyler Myers and Mats Zuccarello and Semyon Varlamov and … you get the picture. The list is stacked.

Karlsson is expected to use Drew Doughty’s $11-million cap hit as a starting point. Bobrovsky and Panarin could both be looking at deals that would carry cap hits north of $9 or even $10 million. Skinner won’t be far behind, and Duchene was on track to get there too before his groin injury sidetracked a career year. Stone is in the same ballpark, although he can’t officially sign an extension until Jan. 1. And many of those other names figure to be looking at cap hits that would at least start with a six or seven on a multi-year deal. That’s a ton of talent, and a ton of potential money.

Hockey fans might be wondering whether it’s unusual for this many big-name pending UFAs to make it this far into the season without an extension. The short answer: Yes, it’s extremely unusual. For the longer answer, and what it might mean for 2019, let’s dive into the recent history.

Playing the waiting game

Most star players sign extensions relatively early. Some do it right on July 1, the first day they’re eligible; we saw that this year with Doughty and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Others take a few weeks, like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2014, or even make it past opening night, like Brent Burns last year. But by the time the calendar flips over to December, most of the big names are already locked down.

When a pending UFA does make it this far into the season without an extension, there are basically three ways the situation can play out. The first is that they eventually sign during the season and stay with their team. If you’re a fan of a team that has one of those big names above, that’s the scenario you’re looking for.

The second possibility is that the player doesn’t sign during the season, but avoids free agency by agreeing to an extension during the offseason. In theory, that’s just as good. But these cases often involve the player being traded first, either as a deadline rental or in one of those June deals that sees his rights dealt in exchange for a middling draft pick. It doesn’t always work that way; as we’ll see, there are players who’ve made it through the season without an extension and then re-upped with their team weeks before free agency, and if you’re a contending team like the Sharks or Blue Jackets, maybe you’re willing to roll the dice while you chase a Cup right now. But if you’re the Senators or Flyers, can you take that chance?

And then there’s the third option: The player doesn’t sign during the season, they don’t sign during the offseason and they make it to the free agency period. At that point they’re free to shop their services to any team and the odds of them coming back are slim.

So how common is it for a star player to make it to December without an extension? And when it happens, how often do each of those three situations above play out?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, December 10, 2018

Weekend power rankings: You can't touch a Flame when it's red hot

Spoiler​ alert: Even though​ they​ lost​ last​ night​ in​ Edmonton, the​ Flames are going​ to be back​ in​ this week’s top​​ five.

That probably isn’t going to shock you. Calgary remains one of the hottest teams in the league, having won nine of their last twelve to take over top spot in the Pacific. Until last night they’d been filling up the net, raking fourth in goals scored league-wide. But lately they’ve been keeping the puck out too, with David Rittich playing well and Mike Smith suddenly looking like a viable NHL starter again.

That’s a tough combo to beat, as most of the Flames’ recent opponents could tell you. They’d won four straight heading into the weekend, which set up a marquee matchup with the Predators that featured the West’s two top teams facing off with top spot in the conference on the line. It was the sort of game that feels like a test for a surging young team, and the Flames passed it by pouring in three third-period goals, turning a tight game into a 5-2 win.

After that kind of a season-defining win, maybe it was inevitable that last night’s renewal of the Battle of Alberta would be a bit of a dud. The last time these two teams met, it had us giddy for a potential playoff matchup. Last night looked more like a tired team coming off an emotional win travelling to play a rested rival in a tough building. The Flames fell behind early, had a goal waved off for interference and then spent much of the third killing penalties instead of pushing for the comeback. The Oilers earned their 1-0 win and are working their way back into the Pacific title discussion themselves. But it didn’t feel like they got the Flames best last night.

Still, it was a good week for Calgary, especially given that they were missing two players to suspension, including captain Mark Giordano. So yeah, the Flames are going to be in our top five this week. The question is how high they go and which teams they pass along the way. Let’s find out …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Hey, remember when I made a big deal out of finally putting the Sabres in the top five, then they won the next night and haven’t won again since? I think that may have been my fault. Sorry, Buffalo, won’t happen again.

5. Washington Capitals (17-9-3, +16 true goals differential*) – This week brought a three-game road trip and four of a possible six points. Not bad, although not necessarily the sort of performance that guarantees a spot in the top five. Still, seeing them face down the Blue Jackets in a battle for top spot in the Metro and come away with a 4-0 road win was impressive. Next weekend brings an intriguing matchup against the Sabres and a chance for the champs to continue to defend their turf against the next wave of contenders.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (20-9-1, +25) – They’re still sitting second overall. But their last two games have been ugly and Saturday’s loss in a nasty game in Boston had to bring back at least a few memories of playoffs past. It will also cost them Zach Hyman, who earned two games for his late hit on Charlie McAvoy.

There’s no need to panic, but for now we’ll nudge the Leafs down a spot or two until William Nylander finds his legs and the team reminds us that they can show up before the third period starts.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, December 7, 2018

Grab Bag: Want to be the NHL's next commissioner? Apply now!

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I got a hold of the NHL's job posting for the next commissioner
- The Hurricanes and Ducks are doing something very cool tonight
- An obscure player who beat Ron Hextall to history by three days
- The week's three comedy stars feature the Habs being very mean to the Senators
- And we welcome Seattle to the NHL by looking back at how the league did expansion 20 years ago in a wild YouTube breakdown

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Which teams have the best (and worst) odds of winning a Stanley Cup in the next five years?

It’s​ Future Week here​ on​ The​ Athletic’s​ NHL​ pages.​ So today,​ let’s head into​ that future. How​ does​ five years sound?

If​​ you said “way too far to predict with any accuracy, you idiot”, then you’re right. But we’re going to do it anyway, by trying to figure out which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup at any point in the next five years.

It’s a deceivingly tough question, one that touches on everything from current rosters to prospect pipelines to coaching to cap management. I tried to tackle it three years ago at Grantland, with mixed results (more on that in a bit). Today I’m going to try again, because I do not learn from my mistakes.

But first: You may have seen Monday’s Future Power Rankings, a piece that ranked the 31 existing teams in terms of where they’ll be in three years. It was basically an attempt to project what the league will look like in 2020-21.

So is this the same thing? Not really, although there will be some obvious overlap. If you’re well set up to be among the league’s best teams in three years, you’re basically hitting the sweet spot of a five-year window. And if you’re headed toward being a mess in a few years, you’re probably not in great shape on either end of that. We’ll be referring back to the Future Power Rankings several times as we go.

But today’s ranking isn’t necessarily about the future, and it’s not meant as a ranking of which teams will be in the best shape a certain number of years from now. We just want to win Cups here, and for our purposes, a win in 2019 counts just as much as one in 2023. That means that an old team without many prospects can still rank well if their window remains open right now. And a team that’s an utter mess today still has time to turn things around. Five years is a long time.

So with that in mind, let’s move on to figuring out which teams are the most likely to win the next five Stanley Cups. As with any attempt at projecting the future, some of these rankings will turn out to be wrong; it’s hard enough to predict what’s going to happen in the NHL tonight, let alone half a decade from now. If you’re the sort of person who gets irrationally upset over that, feel free to track me down and scream at me about it. Just remember that you have to wait five years first.

Grab a cup of coffee and settle in. We’ll start at the bottom, and with what should be the only sure thing in this post. Maybe.

32. Seattle Something-or-Others

If the Golden Knight taught us one thing, it’s that anything can happen in the NHL. If they taught us a second and more important thing, it’s that having a clean slate of cap room turns out to be far more valuable than we may have realized.

So why don’t I think Seattle has much of a chance to match the Knights’ success? Partly because I view that Vegas season as a perfect storm that’s unlikely to be duplicated. And partly because I suspect that the other teams are going to smarten up in terms of how they handle expansion. They may even over-correct, hurting themselves in the process. But either way, Seattle is going to have a tougher time fleecing teams right out of the gate.

But mostly, I feel good about this pick because Seattle won’t join the league until 2021. That eats up three of our five years, which means their odds have to be the longest of anyone in the league.

At least I’m pretty sure they should. And I’m never wrong about an expansion team, as long as you ignore literally everything I’ve written since 2017.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 3%

31. Los Angeles Kings

I suspect that Kings fans won’t be overly surprised to see their team bringing up the rear among the 31 established franchises. The Kings’ rebuild hasn’t even started yet; we’re not even sure they realize how badly they need one. There’s talent coming through the system, but with an uninspiring NHL roster and a long-term cap situation clogged with big deals for declining veterans, there’s a ton of work to do in Los Angeles. They might get there, but by the time they do, most of our five-year window should be gone.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 4%

30. Chicago Blackhawks

On the one hand, this feels like an easy one. The ‘Hawks were bad last year. They’re worse this year. And with a cap situation dominated by long-term contracts to aging stars who, for the most part, just aren’t ever going to be the players they once were, there’s little reason to think that things will get any better. The prospect pipeline is OK but not much more than that, and among the young players on the roster, only Alex DeBrincat really looks like a potential star. They’re basically the Kings, in just slightly better shape.

So it’s an easy call. Almost too easy. These are still the Blackhawks, just three years removed from a mini-dynasty, and the rush to bury them feels at least a little like wishful thinking. I’m still going to do it, because I have to bury a few teams for this to work. But if Stan Bowman rediscovers his magic, the Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews duo ages gracefully, and Artemi Panarin shows up at their front door on July 1 holding a sign that says ADOPT ME, I’ll be muttering “I knew it” while Blackhawks fans gleefully shove me out onto an ice floe.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 6%

29. Ottawa Senators

Here’s where things get tricky. On the one hand, the Senators’ young players have looked good this year, and there’s reason to be optimistic that Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk can both be difference makers. Mix in some decent prospects on the way and a handful of core pieces still left over from the conference final run two years ago, and on paper I should probably be more optimistic, even without that 2019 first-round pick to build around and Mark Stone and Matt Duchene still unsigned.

The big question is whether they can really win a Cup with Eugene Melnyk as owner, given his financial constraints and non-stop parade of distractions and controversies. I’m just not convinced that they can, with the recent implosion of their arena plans reinforcing that. Melnyk continues to insist he’ll never sell. But if and when new ownership arrives, feel free to move the Senators up at least a few slots, and maybe more.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 7%

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, December 3, 2018

Weekend power rankings: Nylander and Wilson both come in late and maybe a little high

Well,​ you have to​ give​ William​ Nylander​ and​ Kyle​ Dubas some​ credit. They know​ how to build​ to​ a dramatic finish.

The weekend’s​​ biggest story came off the ice, as contract negotiations between the Maple Leafs and their talented young winger went down to the wire. With Saturday’s 5:00 p.m. ET deadline looming, we made it well into the afternoon without any kind of indication of where things were headed. As the timer ticked down and it became clear that there wouldn’t be a trade, it started to look like we could actually see the deadline come and go without any kind of deal in place.

And then, with just minutes to go, the word came down: They had a deal.

The details, in case you missed them: Nylander gets a six-year deal that will pay him just under $42-million, and carries a cap hit north of $10-million for this season, before settling in at $6.9-million the rest of the way. He’s expected to play this week, either tomorrow in Buffalo or on Thursday against Detroit.

Let’s make a few observations here, starting with an obvious one: If this really went down the way it’s been described, and the two sides didn’t actually strike a deal until there were just minutes left before the deadline, that is insane. Like, it’s completely nuts.

Maybe we’re just seeing a little dramatic license come into play here. But according to reports, there was no deal until Nylander himself called Dubas just 30 minutes before the deadline, and the actual contract wasn’t signed until there were just eight minutes to spare. If that’s true, or even all that close, it means that what could turn out to be a career-defining decision for both the player and the GM came down to the same sort of last-minute scramble as your high-school history essays. It’s madness.

In the bigger picture, the deal seems to work well enough for both sides. Nylander ultimately got what he was looking for – maybe not the Leon Draisaitl money he was rumored to be using as a starting point, but something north of what David Pastrnak accepted a year ago. That comparison always rankled some fans, since Pastrnak is the better player. But in hindsight he signed for less than he deserved and that’s hardly Nylander’s fault. The young Leaf played hardball, even insisting that his deal contain enough bonuses to make him whole for the time he missed. And in the end, he got just about exactly what he wanted.

As for Dubas and the Leafs, they weren’t able to push Nylander down to the number they were hoping for, and if you insist on a narrative of either side blinking, then that’s the Maple Leafs. But in terms of the long-term cap hit – this year really doesn’t matter – Dubas kept the number under $7-million, if only barely.

Is that too much? It might be. But it’s not, despite the way some are trying to spin it, the sort of deal that forces a GM to break up a team. The Leafs are probably paying Nylander about a half-million more a year than they’d like to. That’s not ideal and a hard cap means you need to squeeze value wherever you can. But it’s the sort of problem that eventually forces you into a move on your fourth line or bottom pair, not with your stars. The Leafs have said all along that they can keep their big four forwards and nothing that happened with Nylander should force them to change that approach.

James Mirtle breaks down the impact in more detail right here. But the big winner here is all of us, who can finally move on to another story. If you’re a Leafs fan, the Nylander drama was looming over everything that the team was doing on the ice. If you’re not, you’re probably wondering how a 60-point winger managed to take over the NHL’s news cycle. Either way, we’re done, and we can all move on to something more important. Like obsessing over contracts for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews for most of the next year.

I’m kidding. Kind of.

In what can only be described as an inexcusable decision, the NHL still went ahead and played some actual games on the weekend, even as everyone in the hockey world was 100 percent focused on the Nylander drama. Some of those games even shifted our weekly power rankings around. We’ll get to that in a bit. But first, hey, speaking of Cap hits that might be too high …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Tom Wilson was at it again on the weekend. The Capitals winger, fresh off a 14-game suspension for throwing a dumb hit, figured it was time to get back to throwing dumb hits.

Wilson’s hit on Brett Seney resulted in a match penalty, but no further discipline. It wasn’t a hit to head, despite the call on the ice. But it was late and it was from behind on a vulnerable player. As far as suspensions go, it was borderline.

That put the Department of Player Safety in a tough spot. A player’s history comes into play for discipline decisions, but only in the “how many games” phase. In theory, at least, a player’s reputation has nothing to do with whether a hit is suspension-worthy or not. The DoPS basically had two choices: Decide that the hit didn’t rise to the level of a suspension and give Wilson nothing, or decide that it did and then, given his record, sit him down for a long time.

In the end, they decided to go with the former. It may have been the right call; had any player other than Wilson thrown the same hit, maybe most people just shrug it off. The hit wasn’t clean – you’re not allowed to skate through the back of a player who doesn’t have the puck, and never have been – but there’s still such a thing as bad hits that don’t merit suspensions. The DoPS felt that Wilson’s hit was one of them.

But even if the hit wasn’t worth another 20 games, it was dumb. It was unnecessary. Wilson wasn’t breaking up a play or creating a chance or doing anything to help his team. He just saw a guy he could paste and he couldn’t help himself. Or maybe he could – viewed generously, he seems to reconsider at the last second and try to bail on the hit, but it’s too late. Either way, Wilson isn’t even picking his spots. He took his massive suspension for a hit in a meaningless preseason game and now this. The problem is that there just doesn’t seem to be an off switch. He just hits whoever he can, however he can and then apologizes later if he needs to.

It increasingly feels like this can only end one of two ways. Either very, very badly, with somebody getting seriously hurt and Wilson sitting out most of a season. Or with Wilson changing his game so radically that he’s not Tom Wilson anymore. The ideal situation – the one where he still gets to be the dominant physical force the Capitals paid $31-million for but doesn’t throw dumb hits that hurt his team and risk massive suspensions for no benefit – just doesn’t seem to be an option for this guy.

5. Washington Capitals (15-8-3, +12 true goals differential*) – In related news, the defending champs are back in the top five, despite yesterday’s collapse against the Ducks that snapped a seven-game win streak. And yes, Wilson is part of that, because when he’s in the lineup he helps them win.

You could say that the Capitals are running over everyone, but I’ve been assured that it’s more like they’re just gliding around innocently and everyone else keeps backing into them.

4. Colorado Avalanche (15-6-5, +25) – I’ve never fully bought into the Avalanche. I still don’t, if I’m being honest. But at some point the results have to count for more than the gut instinct or whatever else and the Avs are at that point. They haven’t lost in regulation since Nov. 9 and have passed the Jets and Wild in the Central, with the Predators in sight. They’ve earned a spot.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic