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Ask Me Anything: How to fix your eliminated team

Matt Larkin
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Ask Me Anything: How to fix your eliminated team

Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Author: (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

News

Ask Me Anything: How to fix your eliminated team

Matt Larkin
By:

What's next for all the non-playoff teams? This mailbag tackles the game plans for the Flames, Rangers, Blackhawks and more.

Hey folks. The Ask Me Anything Mailbag returns…briefly. After this one, I’ll take a break until it’s almost draft time. The theme this week: eliminated teams. Your seasons ended less than a week ago, and the wounds are still fresh, so let’s see if I can provide you with some written ointment – or salt, depending on your team’s outlook.

I got a handful of draft questions but will shelve those for the next instalment. This AMA is more about sorting through the eliminated teams’ wreckage and trying to make sense of it. Here we go!

Ben Thielmann (@BenThielmann41) asks…

Should Calgary make some big moves or stay the course and hope their PDO regresses to the mean? If you were Brad Treliving, would you move Sam Bennett or continue to be patient?

Hey Ben. The Flames were one of the most confounding teams this season, no doubt, especially because they looked pretty darned good for certain stretches. What went wrong?

Mike Smith’s injury had a major impact on the year. When he hurt his groin with one second left in a Feb. 11 game, he was 23-16-6 with a .921 save percentage and was widely considered Calgary’s MVP to that point. The Flames were 29-19-8 and squarely in the playoff mix. He missed a month, and the Flames went 6-5-2. They were good enough not to fall out of the race, but did Smith come back too soon? He wasn’t the same goalie, finishing the year 2-6-0 with an .880 SP in eight appearances post-injury.

Another major hindrance on Calgary’s stretch run: first-line center Sean Monahan’s complete body breakdown. The gruesome injury report this week revealed he needed four surgeries – two hip procedures, reconstructive wrist surgery and groin surgery. Well, geez, no wonder he only scored four goals in his final 21 games before being shut down. He could barely grip his stick. Toss in concussions for Matthew Tkachuk and T.J. Brodie and it’s pretty understandable why the bottom fell out for Calgary in the second half. And you’re right about Calgary’s PDO, Brad. It was bottom-three (adjusted) in the NHL, and the Flames were top-three in possession, so they did plenty right this year.

I thus wouldn’t panic if I were Treliving. That said, I wouldn’t sit on my hands, either. This team needs some work, for sure, especially on the power play. The Flames were top heavy once again this year, relying too much on their excellent top two lines, and I think it’s time to explore a trade for an impact forward. Calgary has great depth on defense – and not just as the NHL level with Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic. The Flames have some legit prospects coming in Juuso Valimaki, Adam Fox and Rasmus Andersson. Valimaki ranks as our No. 16 overall prospect in Future Watch 2018, and Fox sits 52nd. Between them and goaltending prospects Tyler Parsons and Jon Gillies, the Flames look good from the net out.

At forward, though: not much help coming. Our scouting panel ranked one Calgary forward prospect in the top 100: Dillon Dube at 87th. The Flames thus need to make a big splash. I wonder if Treliving should dangle a blueliner – Brodie? – in a hockey trade for a forward who can help, assuming one or both of Valimaki or Andersson is ready to ascend to a full-time job out of camp next fall. As for Bennett: I’d be tempted to sell before his value dips too much further. We have to stop sugarcoating it: Bennett was drafted fourth overall in 2014, ahead of William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers and David Pastrnak, and Bennett can’t even escape Calgary’s bottom six. That draft was four years ago. He’s a bust relative to expectation. That doesn’t mean he can’t still have a good career, and plenty of teams would have interest in jumpstarting it since he’s just 21 (younger than Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov, for example). But I’d cash in that chip while it still has value. Even if Bennett becomes a 25-goal scorer someday, he was supposed to be much more than that.

(note: I had mistakenly referenced Calgary still having its first-round pick this year and completely lapsed – they don't! Apologies for the error)

SP19hockey (@SP19hockey) asks…

How soon would you have fired Garth Snow?

Loaded question! I’ll answer as politely as I can. Snow has a bizarre mystique about him, doesn’t he? Very secretive and somehow able to hold down his job year after year.

Snow has manned the Isles GM position 12 seasons, with four playoff berths and one series victory to show for it. As for when I would’ve axed him: maybe following the 2013-14 season, after the Isles went from their first playoff berth with John Tavares in 2012-13 to back out of the playoffs? Snow also made the ill-fated Nino Niederreiter trade before the 2013-14 season. Then again, Tavares blew out his knee in the 2014 Olympics, so Snow had an excuse for the playoff miss.

Even if he got a stay of execution that year, I’m stunned that he kept his job after last season, in which the Andrew Ladd signing proved utterly disastrous and the team slid out of the post-season after two straight years in the playoffs and looking like fringe contenders.

At this point I have no idea what it will take for Snow to get his walking papers. I’m truly at a loss. Maybe failing to re-sign Tavares this summer would do the trick? That said, Snow spoke pretty confidently about building a Cup contender in his end-of-season presser. That sounds like someone expecting to have Tavares back, and I still think Tavares staying is a better bet than Tavares leaving. The emergence of Calder Trophy shoo-in Mathew Barzal provides hope, as does the Belmont Park arena deal, over which Tavares was very publicly ecstatic. So, deserved or not, Snow isn’t done using up all his lives. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I don’t know if there’s a topic in the sport that stumps me more than this one.

Long Sean Silvers (@seanms22) asks…

Who’s the best fit as the New York Rangers’ next coach and/or who’s the most realistic option?

Hey Long Sean. Nice name, haha. To me, the best clue as to the direction Jeff Gorton and Glen Sather go is the letter they sent to their fans in February, vowing to fix the team and add “young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character.” Alain Vigneault is known as a veterans’ coach, a guy who defers to his greybeards, so he was obviously not fit to helm the ship anymore given the Rangers’ shift in mantra. The next coaching hire will thus likely be someone who works well with young players.

A quick and easy place to look would be Dan Bylsma, who flamed out in Buffalo but elevated a young Pittsburgh Penguins core to championship status in 2009. But that doesn’t seem creative enough to me. My gut says a retread is not the way to go if the Rangers really want to change their philosophy. The Rangers could look at Keith McCambridge, coach of their AHL affiliate, but he doesn’t have a sterling track record even at that level.

The guy I’d turn my sights to is Sheldon Keefe, coach of the Toronto Marlies. He’s taken over Travis Green’s unofficial title of “best coach not in the NHL,” has helped turn the Marlies into a powerhouse and is completely blocked by Mike Babcock’s eight-year deal at the NHL level. Keefe seems ready for prime time, especially if he can get the Marlies a Calder Cup win this year. Given the success of Dave Hakstol coming over from the NCAA ranks in recent years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rangers take a long look at big names like Boston U’s David Quinn or Denver’s Jim Montgomery. But to me, Keefe is the guy. Especially if he wins a championship with the Marlies this spring, he’ll have absolutely nothing left to accomplish in that league and should have a lineup of NHL suitors.

Richard Russell (@redarizona13) asks…

Can the Blackhawks rebuild in a couple seasons? Or have they reached the point where their core of players is aging out and their contracts limit their ability to rebuild?

I think Hawks fans must prepare for a long ride to the bottom of the rollercoaster. Normally, after a playoff miss, it’s natural for a team to start thinking rebuild, but when that team is loaded with massive, prohibitive contracts, it’s kind of stuck. We’ve seen how long it’s taking and will take the Detroit Red Wings to rebuild, as Ken Holland handed out so many monster, impossible-to-move deals that he can’t trade them and bottom out properly, and Chicago could find itself in a similar situation.

Brent Seabrook? Six years left at a $6.88-million cap hit, and he turns 33 next week. That contract is going nowhere given how much term is left, and good luck buying it out – you’d be paying Seabrook through 2029-30, and the first six years of the buyout would carry monster cap hits. Duncan Keith: still a crucial member of the blueline, but 35 next season and probably not worth five more seasons at $5.54 million. Even Jonathan Toews, whose offense has dried up in recent years, probably isn’t earning every penny of his $10.5-million cap hit anymore.

But these guys are (a) Chicago institutions and (b) almost impossible to trade even if you wanted to, meaning the Hawks have to keep them and thus will remain competitive enough to stay on the playoff fringe for several seasons. Because they were so good for so long, the Hawks traded away a bunch of picks and prospects over the years and thus have one of the league’s weaker farm crops. Alex DeBrincat made his splash this year, but there isn’t another high-ceiling guy coming right now. Our panel of NHL scouts rated Chicago’s prospects 29th out of 31 NHL teams in Future Watch 2018, and the Hawks’ best prospect, blueliner Henrik Jokiharju, ranks just 68th overall.

So Chicago can’t really rebuild. It also doesn’t have the cap space to keep the pedal on the medal and try to improve rapidly via signings. Essentially, GM Stan Bowman just has to show some real smarts to dig his way out of this. That means clever trades, sleeper signings and savvy drafting. Hey – the Hawks have done it before, sneaking Artemi Panarin over from the KHL, so it’s not impossible. But it feels like Chicago’s amazing run is over. There’s nothing wrong with that. Bowman summed it up in an interview for a story I did last year on how to build a champion:

“We realized who makes our team go, and it’s been those same six, seven, eight guys, and they make a lot of money and rightfully so.  When they accomplish a lot…good things happen when your team plays well and you win Stanley Cups and your players play great. Then they’re going to make a lot of money. And they should.

“But then the challenge is, how do you make that work? And the way you make that work is to have the right guys around them. It’s sort of been a revolving door, but that’s because as some of those players come in and have some success, then they have to get paid, and you can either fit them in or you’ve got to move them out. And that’s what we’ve done.”

Bowman understood that players have to be financially rewarded for success. It’s only fair. That meant he had to follow that top-heavy model of constantly trading out support players and paying his big stars. It worked – until the big stars started to age. Now that Keith and Toews, for example, aren’t playing at elite levels anymore, the model collapses, as you’re paying too much money for guys who can no longer lift your team to a championship. We may see the same thing happen to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a few years once Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin exit their primes, though it sometimes feels like they’ll be dominating until they’re 40.

And that’s absolutely OK. It was totally worth it for the Hawks, and it’s currently worth it for the Penguins, whose farm system is just as gutted. But now Chicago probably has to languish in mediocrity for a few years. A full rebuild doesn’t seem possible unless the Hawks get a draft lottery miracle and pull the top ping-pong ball. You never know…

Aaron Steward (@Stew_Chains) asks…

Do the Blues have a legit shot at John Tavares? Who else might they look at to fill their DESPERATE need for a top-six forward? Thanks!

Hey Aaron. From a pure hockey/market standpoint, yes, I think the Blues could be a fit. Tavares will want an organization with championship upside and, I believe, a market that will help him retain a certain degree of anonymity. He isn’t a shrinking violet, but he’s no P.K. Subban, either. I thus don’t buy any crackpot theory about Tavares signing in Montreal, Toronto or any Canadian city. Too much spotlight. I believe the New Jersey Devils are his best fit if he doesn’t stay with the Isles – but the Blues check off plenty of boxes, too. It would be exciting to see, for example, Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz operating on one line as a tandem, with Tavares and Vladimir Tarasenko together. Anders Lee is underrated ­– but Tavares also elevated him. Would Tarasenko be a 50-goal scorer on Tavares’ line? Maybe.

As for the cap situation, the Blues aren’t in awful shape. The silver lining to Robby Fabbri tearing his ACL in his RFA year is that he’s much more likely to earn a bridge contract now and will likely carry half the cap hit he would have after a full, productive season. Sturdy stay-at-home blueliner Joel Edmundson is an RFA and deserves a medium-to-long-term deal but won’t absolutely break the bank. The Blues have no monster RFA pacts to worry about in the next couple summers, as Schwartz, Tarasenko and Colton Parayko have all inked their extensions already, and Jay Bouwmeester’s $5.4 million comes off the books in one more summer when he’s a UFA.

So yes, the Blues theoretically have some money to play with and could afford to wade into the Tavares waters if the cap expands near the $80-million range. If they fail, however, and Tavares signs elsewhere, don’t be discouraged. I really like the Blues as a bounce-back team next year, specifically because they have so much help coming to their top-six forward group. Fabbri’s return feels like a free player acquisition, and the Blues have a Big Four of high-end prospects at forward: Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, Klim Kostin and the already-arrived Tage Thompson. Those guys have legitimate top-six ability, and it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see at least two of them break camp with St. Louis next year. They all have different skill sets, but each is talented enough to make an impact right away and contend for the Calder Trophy. Thomas’ two-way play is very mature, while Kostin has gotten a year of AHL seasoning, so I like both their chances of making the jump in 2018-19. The Blues could surprise a lot of people, with or without Tavares.

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Ask Me Anything: How to fix your eliminated team